After Earth

I became convinced, while watching After Earth, that it was based on a novel. I was wrong, and I’m disappointed, because this is a story that I really believe could be told more effectively in prose.

That said, it could also be told more effectively in the medium of film. After Earth underestimates its audience at some junctures, and at others seems to paint itself into a narrative corner, leaving itself with only cliches and overtly telegraphed character moments to pull it back out.

Aesthetically, the movie is lush, and presents a vision of humanity’s far-future that is paradoxically both bleak and somehow more hopeful than today. The design of space ships, architecture, and even clothing is very organic — akin to the natural-futuristic aesthetic found in films like Aeon Flux.

Tonally, however, this is an apocalyptic war film. We’re met with a doomed humanity, in a desperate race to save itself again annihilation by the Ursa — a breed of predatory aliens apparently designed to kill humans. 

ursa
What a cutie!

This is where the first set of questions arises.

Why are the Ursa “designed” to kill humans? Is that just a throwaway line, akin to calling them “apex predators”? Or were they actually engineered? If the latter, how, why, and by whom? Are they the natural inhabitants of the planet that humanity attempted to colonize after leaving Earth, not vicious predators at all but just regular life-forms living their own lives a la Alien?

Alas, we viewers never get those answers.

As Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his son Kitai (Jaden Smith) crash-land on Earth we learn that the planet is now quarantined for being completely inhospitable to human life. Accoring to Smith’s character, “everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans.” On top of this, the climate has changed drastically — but not in a way that would be believably consistent with climate change. No, instead, Earth is now an evil realm in a fantasy novel where nightfall brings a literal creeping frost that descends over previously mild biospheres and freezes everything instantly, somehow without doing any long-term damage to the plant life.

It’s almost like Earth has been transformed into an elaborate training simulation meant to strengthen Earth’s military forces — which could be an interesting, Ender’s Game-esque turning point for the narrative. Unfortunately I can’t give the writers that much credit. This is just worldbuilding that tries to be cool but ends up so broken that it can barely support the narrative. 

The function of the film’s technology is just as wobbly. Raige Sr., his leg wrecked, stays on board the ruins of their spacecraft while Kitai goes off in search of a rescue beacon that ended up at the crash site of the front half of the ship. Ostensibly, a combination of video and 3-D mapping technology allows Raige Sr. to observe his son from all angles at all times. But Kitai hides things from his dad at key junctures.

How much can Raige Sr. actually observe at a given time? Why does Kitai deign to hide things from his father when his father is miles away, unable to touch him, only trying to offer realistic guidance? How did Raige Sr. actually survive the crash in the first place, when the last thing we see is him being sucked out an airlock and (presumably, if we’re dealing with physics here) dumped several hundred miles away from the site where Kitai finds him?

Honestly, at this point, the story doesn’t even matter. There’s some pseudo-philosophical themes about self-control and letting go of fear, but they become so mired in the utterly nonsensical background structure of the tale that any poignancy that they would have had is totally drained.

I can’t recommend After Earth in any way, but if you’re feeling up to the task of constructing some wild fan theories to fill in those plot holes, have at it.

 

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The Doomed City by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

If someone asked me what The Doomed City was about, I’d probably say it’s like a Soviet Dhalgren. It’s also like a Cold-War Russian Dark City, but since this novel obviously came first, I’m inclined to say that at least one of these properties ripped off The Doomed City to some extent.

(It’s Dark City.)

The actual plot of The Doomed City is rather loose — the story follows Andrei Voronin and a selection of other men through their lives in “The Experiment.”

The Experiment is nebulously described at a variety of junctions, but basically it comprises everything that the characters experience and interact with. They live in a city, but one with no defined location, climate or demographic. The inhabitants of the city come from a variety of nations and time periods, though all seem to represent, in one way or another, different political viewpoints that would have been of concern to a Russian citizen in the 1970s.

One might think of the Experiment as a massive fish tank, controlled by some unknown race of superintelligent aliens, in which humans take part in the building and daily function of a society, one that’s an odd amalgum of the societies from which they came.

dark
Maybe they’re just floating on a rock in space?

The one key factor that seems consistent in The Experiment is that each subject begins his time on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder and slowly rises through the ranks of society. When we first meet Andrei, he’s working as a garbage collector along with a ragtag group of friends. As the novel progresses, he becomes a detective, then a newspaper editor, then a city councillor. His close friends become policemen, reporters, and fellow councillors in turn, maintaining a similar, if progressively more powerful, group dynamic.

As numerous characters remark throughout the book, “The Experiment is The Experiment.” The apathetic claim becomes something of a mantra, a short, faithful prayer, a confirmation that they know nothing, that everything makes sense because it just does.

When baboons run rampant through the streets, when a seemingly sentient building devours citizens, when an expedition to the outer reaches of this uncharted “world” devolves into a madness of walking statues, temporal anomalies, and mysterious ruins, “The Experiment is The Experiment.”

For all this strangeness, The Doomed City never seems to veer into the same “supernatural” territory that fans of the Strugatsky’s best-known novel, Roadside Picnic, are probably familiar with. It’s a bit odd — The Doomed City might actually contain more of the observable supernatural, but that isn’t its focus.

Rather than painting a landscape, in The Doomed City the Sturgatsky brothers paint a dense party scene, an interpersonal drama with countless players major and minor, each with their own wants, aspirations, faults and failings. Certainly, many of these characters are political mascots, straw men built to represent political ideologies and time periods.

There’s a distinct lack of women in the novel. Those who do appear could be replaced with either men or blow-up dolls without affecting the plot in the slightest.  The Doomed City is as much a product of its time as it is a comment on it. Does that make this particular flaw forgiveable? Maybe, at a stretch, although it does make it glaringly obvious that the Sturgatsky brothers are also the white men by and for whom history is interpreted — perhaps their coded opinion of events (for as much merit as it does have) should also be taken with a grain of salt.

There are a lot of grey areas here, and in the novel, and one thing that I can appreciate about it is that the authors do very little to try to adjust the contrast.

Is The Experiment the afterlife? Is it hell? A genuine scientific study by ultra-advanced aliens, or some kind of government conspiracy? By the end of the novel, you might have formed your own theories, which will either be shattered or supported by the novel’s deliberately ambiguous ending.

Read the book for its dense character studies and fascinatingly nihilistic social commentary — or put it down for its alienation of women and failure to build any real suspense.

Mechanicum by Graham McNeill

Hey, it’s the second Horus Heresy novel that I’ve ever reviewed on the blog!

I’ve always been more partial to the Adeptus Mechanicus than the space marines or Imperial Guard, so I was expecting to enjoy Mechanicum. And it’s pretty good. My main complaint with it is its insistence on cleaving the plot into two (three?) distinct stories that don’t really overlap until the final chapter (and even then, it’s not particularly meaningful.)

The main plot follows Dalia Cythera, an Administratum transcriber with some latent psyker abilities who’s conscripted into helping Adept Koriel Zeth build a device called an Akashic Reader. Dalia’s not a particularly interesting character — her abilities come close to pushing her into Mary Sue territory and she doesn’t seem experienced or opinionated enough to really drive her own narrative. 

Zeth is more interesting — here’s a tech adept who actually values scientific knowledge and experimentation over faith in the Mechanicum’s “god,” the Omnissiah. (Of course, her values are ripped to shreds along with the rest of the planet, but, it’s nice of a 40K property to actually acknowledge the possibility of science over faith.)

Plus, look — a 40K novel with TWO female main characters! Too bad that Zeth gets an introductory description that spends more time on her “lithe, muscular physique,” “shapely armoured legs,” and “the curve of her thighs and the swell of her breasts” than on any demonstration of skill or personality.

Still, for all its failings, the book has charm. There are some great moments that express the conflicted humanity of the Mechanicum, and the age-old cyberpunk question of how much flesh and bone one needs to be considered “human.”

pain
Nice one, Graham

It’s also got a few moments where it’s clear the editor was asleep at the wheel.

 

 

Eye of Terror by Barrington J. Bayley

This is the oldest Warhammer 40K book I’ve thus far read and the tonal differences between the Black Library of the late 90s and the Black Library of today are palpable. This book was a thrift store find and honestly after reading it I’m not surprised it ended up there.

Eye of Terror includes (to its credit and detriment):

  • The old brand of Warhammer 40K that feels like original Warhammer (but in space!)
  • Visible, fully realized depictions of Chaos instead of subtlety and vague allusions
  • Characters that would easily feel at home in an actual tabletop RPG

If you like the above, you’re in for treat. This story is far less bogged-down in bureaucracy than a lot of the later 40K stuff.

The main plot follows a down-on-his luck rogue trader and a misfit psyker through some bad but ultimately fairly inconsequential misadventure. I mean inconsequential in the grander scope of the 40K universe, of course.  Pretty much everyone in the novel still ends up dead. Speaking of scope, though, it’s necessarily a lot smaller in Eye of Terror than in most of the Horus Heresy tomes and whatever Dan Abnett’s been up to for the last few years. 

And I think it works — in such a vast fictional universe, it feels refreshing to see something a little more focused on individual experience. And the aforementioned overtness of the supernatural aspects is pleasing, especially if you’re more interested in the mythology of 40K than the bureaucracy.

This book is also riddled with spelling errors, which I find speaks to an interesting era in the franchise, one of extremely bad sourcebook art and character classes that have long since died out for being too ridiculous to fit into the whole grimdark aesthetic. 

Enemy Mine

What an odd movie. The concept of Enemy Mine doesn’t seem new, but maybe that’s because I’ve been watching so much Star Trek for the past two and a half years. If Enemy Mine came first, then it certainly inspired a number of Star Trek episodes (along with episodes of Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, and the like.)

Roger Ebert told the Chicago Sun Times in 1985 that Enemy Mine “made no compromises in its art direction, its special effects and its performances – and then compromised everything else in sight.” That holds up as an accurate description of the movie. Set design, acting, sound — all these are incredible. The Drac language sounds totally foreign, seems to take into account the physiology of its speakers, and is all-around believable as an alien language. The Drac themselves are still bipedal and humanoid but the asexual reproductive systems and lack of binary gender are brave in a time of green-skinned alien babes.

That said, the writing often feels very lazy. Zero — absolutely zero — thought is given to how human culture will have changed in this future. Look at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. That show is ridiculous (ridiculously awesome), but at least it recognized that baseball is probably going to be a relic of the past in a couple centuries. 

Enemy Mine, on the other hand, proudly and obliviously features a scene of Dennis Quaid (as Willis E. Davidge) teaching his alien child how to play touch football — it’s a part of human culture!

Enemy Mine baby
Sometimes a family is just a single unshaven man and his adopted alien baby.

I have to give Quaid credit for really selling the idea that he loved that slime baby like his own first born child. The costuming and makeup in this movie is amazing, and the baby is no exception, but it was also a bit difficult to not laugh derisively at this scene. (Sorry.)

My personal annoyance with this movie is that it really seems to wind up for a big strike at the political implications of a human and a Drac — two species at war with each other — being forced to survive together, and coming to understand their similarities. It’s peace on a microcosmic scale, but still — the fact that Davidge and Shigan become friends, I feel, should have had some impact on someone, somewhere. Maybe a group of humans would have heard about it and lost their taste for the war, or for Drac slavery. Maybe eventually enough people on both sides would have heard the story, forcing negotiations to take a more peaceful turn.

But instead, Enemy Mine keeps its scope exceedingly narrow — something I normally like in movies, but something that seems like a terrible waste here. After Davidge is rescued, the second half of the story revolves around his efforts to rescue his adopted son — and all the other characters seem to just completely ignore the implications of the fact that this guy is trying to rescue a Drac like the kid’s his very own.

In the end, I found Enemy Mine frustrating. It had a simple, but potentially powerful story concept, and a production team that was obviously dedicated to realizing the world in which that story takes place. I don’t know if I should blame the writers or the director for its fiery trainwreck of a denouement, but it really left me wishing I could blame someone.

 

Dark City

What we have here is an extremely flawed movie that in my humble opinion still manages to be somehow charming.

I have to point out right away that there are a lot of parallels between Dark City and the Sturgatsky brothers’ The Doomed Cityenough that I’d balk at chalking it up to mere coincidence. I would not be surprised to learn that someone on the writing team for this movie was a big fan of the book. 

Dark City follows protagonist John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) as he wakes up in a bathtub in the eponymous city with no recollection of who he is or where he’s been. In trying to figure out just what’s going on, John finds himself pitted against a city whose inhabitants who seem to change occupations and identities at intervals. No one can remember the last time they saw the sun, and no one can seem to remember a route out of the city.

The biggest issue with this movie is its complete and utter lack of subtlety. Where The Doomed City meanders for well over 400 pages without ever revealing the true nature of the city, Dark City opens with two minutes of expositional narration in which everything is handed to the viewer on a silver platter. The city is an experiment devised by a dying, but technologically far superior race of aliens dubbed “The Strangers” who have come to Earth in the hopes of discovering the secrets of the human soul, and somehow using this information to reinvigorate their society.

That could have been an interesting reveal if it were made at the film’s climax. Instead, we the viewers yawn along as Sewell’s character struggles to grasp the facts that we already know.

The design of the aliens, too, really drops the ball. Seriously, what do you picture when someone says “millenia-old race of technologically superior aliens”?

dark city 2
An aging gothic industrial band?

Did the production company have a bunch of outfits left over from Blade: Trinity?

Oh, it’s true that the “actual” aliens are more like parasitic energy-based worms that dwell in the brains of their human hosts. They’re just driving human meat suits in order to “blend in.” But… why exactly do they have to do this? Did they have other bodies they possessed before they discovered Earth? What happened to those?

Not once in the film, during a confrontation with a city inhabitant, do the Strangers even attempt subtlety. They’re a roving band of mobster Nosferatus, threatening their victims with knives. Luckily, they also have the power to erase the memories of all the humans they encounter, not to mention bending reality to their will… so the point seems moot.

The city itself exists in an indiscernible climate, and apparently simultaneously in several different time periods — the clothing, interiors, and building design range from Victorian to late eighties’ imaginings of a near-future. The aesthetic of the whole film feels dated, but at the same time very cool — not quite on par with the aesthetics of, say, 2001: a Space Odyssey, but perhaps a poor-man’s version of that.

The performances are overall decent, despite the over-the-top of the aliens, and the pacing of the movie would be excellent were it not for the fact that it spills all of its secrets right from the get-go.

If you read The Doomed City, though, I do recommend this one — if only to get a feel for what the American fan version is like.