VIDEO: THE EXPANSE | NASA: Behind the Science – Gravity

Source: VIDEO: THE EXPANSE | NASA: Behind the Science – Gravity

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Ex Machina- Film Review

This was another one of the significant science fiction films from 2015 which I have only just watched. I had been interested to see it from early on, knowing that the writer/director was the man who had written films including 28 Days Later, Sunshine and recently the second big screen adaptation of Judge Dredd. This new film, written by Alex Garland, was also his first as director as well.

Early on pictures of the cutting edge visual effects were released, which suggested something very special. This certainly was true, and it does turn out to be a very mature and different SF film.

This is a different kind of film in the science fiction genre, and some SF fans may need to really be prepared for that. It is slow at times, and very concerned with the psychological affects of finding real artificial intelligence.

This film looks fantastic, with an amazing real location out away from crowded cities and towns. Away from everyday civilization Caleba young programmer is flown out to take part in a Turing test with only a reclusive highly successful software company founder. The test lasts around a week, and day by day tensions and questions about the test rise as Caleb spends more time with the new A.I. and designer Nathan.

While the visual effects and design of A.I. female robot Ava and honestly very amazing, this is also very much a seriously tense and dramatic psychological drama. Young programmer Caleb becomes increasingly paranoid, and wonders how the testing of Ava really works, and why he really is there. Not everything is as it seems.

Visually the Ava robot reminded me of some of the effects and designs from Steve Speilbergs’ A.I. film from over a decade ago. Other than her, the film visuals are very basic and minimal which probably works to highlight our focus upon her. Not many modern SF films are so seriously focused on the very real ethical and moral questions relating to potential A.I. if or when it comes. As the film is set very soon from now, and with the CGI effects so convincing today, we really can feel the confusion and desperation of Ava, and understand why Caleb is concerned about her and what is really taking place. It also seemed similar to the recent tv series from the UK, Black Mirror, which has science or speculative fiction tales set in the very near future of years or even months from now.

Besides the science fiction element, it also reminded me of some European films, especially those of Ingmar Bergman and theatre plays in the way it moves along and focuses on the thoughts and feelings of the three main characters in this one building.

This may not be easy for all science fiction film fans to watch, but it is rewarding and really does make us think about things which may in real life, be just around the corner.

 

James E Parsons has his first SF book Orbital Kin out now from all good bookshops, and new book Minerva Century out soon in 2016.

 

Chappie-Film Review

Due to writing and other things, it has taken me some time to get around to finally watching some of the big sci-fi movies from last year. Here we are with the lastest film from Neill Blomkamp, who in the past has previously given us District9 and Elysium. He is seen by some people as arguably the news hope in science fiction cinema, and now he is even linked up to a new film in the popular ALIENS series.

When his last film Elysium recieved mixed reviews concerning the plot and writing, here he has moved to yet another classic SF idea-robots becoming human. This film is great fun, but it is unashamedly similar to the Short Circuit movies and Robocop films of the 1980’s.

He knows that this is not a groundbreakingly orginal concept, but that is alright because here he takes the robots again to his own home country and familiar land of of his first film, Johannesburg. While very similar to Short Circuit in tone, this time the robot story is set only a very short time from right now, our present time, and so pulls in a few modern cultural elements that we see and hear today.

So does this film do more than simply rehash 80’s robot movies?

Well, narratively speaking, it really is as if Johnny5 from Short Circuit is the lead police robot in one of the Robocop films. That is how it goes really. But don’t worry, as this time, the visually are really captivating, with motion-capture animation of Blomkamp regular actor Sharlto Copley. So unlike those 80’s sci-fi movies with their large cumbersome animatronic physical effects, the character of Chappie moves much more smoothly and fluidly on screen. He is a joy to watch.

So while the main story may be mostly highly predictable, the film does looks so fantastic visually, with great lighting and cinematography, fantastic locations and sets. We also have a number of great and well known movie icons and actors including Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman, Dev Patel. It is great to see Jackman play against type, as a nasty  ex-military bully, desperate and cheating through the film. Dev Patel is the usual lovable character we can expect from him, and Weaver is becoming a mainstay in Blomkamp films.

So as the movie goes along, we watch and think ‘Okay, this actually is Robocop with Johnny5 in the lead’, it is entertaining as he is given consciousness and goes from being a very naive child-like robot, to then being used and manipulated into a street style ‘gangster’ robot, while his maker Patel, urges him to think for himself, follow his creative desires and interests over crime and violence. It is an emotional and moving film, especially for example when Chappie is left in the urban streets and attacked by youths.

This is entertaining but then as the expected story moves along, the plot changes and goes a bit further than Short Circuit simply did. Chappie sees that he has only days left to ‘live’ but than hopes to find a way to stay alive. This element reminded me of the Replicants from Blade Runner but in this case, you feel more for this artificial being.

The film does end with a wide and spectacular set piece, guns blasting and robots fighting. It may have been derivative and very familiar but with the philosophical changes and the unique visual effects it is a great modern sci-fi movie. Interestingly, I watched the ‘alternate’ ending after seeing the cinema cut and it would have offered a much more possibly grim and dystopian version.

Should we fear artificial intelligence? Should we fear the rise of robots? They may come to work with us, live with us in our lifetime, but they may be friends have rights as well.

 

James E Parsons has his second SF book Minerva Century published soon in 2016.

 

NEON GENESIS EVANGELION:Series Review

So at long last, I have somehow managed to simply binge-watch the entire original series of anime modern classic Neon Genesis Evangelion in just under two weeks. I had started to watch the first few episodes a good while ago, but it became side tracked by writing of a new novel and other things. With a recent book done and some time to spare, I returned to get through this highly acclaimed and influential series finally.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with anime and manga and the good many classic series and feature films, but this is probably the most significant one from the 90’s period, commercially at least. Even so it also has many very impressive creative and artistic moments through the series, especially toward the end.

I think I wanted to see this show-which I did know a little about and had seen mentioned from time to time-a couple of years ago, when I was catching up with the Mecha side of manga and anime. I am a big fan of classic SF manga/anime such as AKIRA and Ghost in the Shell, but was gradually getting more familiar with things like Gundam, Bubblegum Crisis, Patlabor to name just a few.

Some do see Neon Genesis as possibly more pretentious than other mecha and sci-fi themed anime, but that may simply be due to it having a more character focused and often philosophical approach. Some people see the show as post-modern mecha anime, as it does in some ways go beyond the expected cliches of the genre and what we might expect from sci-fi anime shows.

So the show does almost just jump right into the main story and action of these chosen special young teens who go into these mecha robot suits to fight the mysterious giant ‘angels’ which appear and rampage across the land on a regular basis. Young teenage boy Shinji finds himself chosen and has to learn how to be the best Eva pilot, but also wants to know what his father is doing in connection with it all.

There are mysteries and colourful action sequences regularly, as well as some the usual almost juvenile anime childish moments, but these thankfully are not all the way through and most of the time, the show looks at young Shinji, his path as an Eva pilot, his new friends who do the same thing in their own ways, and what the Angel attacks mean and how the society react to it all.

For an anime show probably aimed originally at children or young adults, it regularly is very thought provoking, as it considers things like the anxieties and fears of young teenagers, the romances, the confusion and friendships but then also with the Eva units and the Angels monsters, it questions how a country would defend itself, why and what the results of it could be in the longrun after it.

It would have been nice to have viewed the show at the time it was originally on air, catching it week by week, but it was good enough to mostly watch it all in this short period of time, to maintain the ongoing story and themes.

I had read up a bit on the internet toward the end about the things which influenced the show, and how it was made and what kind of phenomenon it had become soon after. There are a number of interesting religious and spiritual references and imagery which crop up time and again in the show. Later on, there are a number of well written sequences and scenes where the characters contemplate very deep philosophical questions of life, existence, death, rebirth, purpose and more. This seemed brave and almost very original and successful for this kind of anime show.

I have learned that the last couple of episodes and how they became very surreal and philosophical in some ways angered and dissapointed many fans of the show and this then led to the later feature length follow-up movies. One of these was a edited together collection of significant secene from almost every episode, which I dipped into early on and it almost melted my brain, and the other is a more linear, feature length resolution to the series. With better animation, strong and dynamic scenes and action all the way through, this was made as a response to the bad reaction from show fans and an alternative, possibly more expected and satisfying end to the entire story.

I think it still works well to watch all of the series, incuding the final two ‘surreal’ episodes and then the more straight forward final feature length movie. Probably best to just skip past the ‘Death & Rebirth’ feature length unless a total die-hard fan.

Overall, this was a very interesting, thoughtful anime show, which does offer a lot for casual fans of anime or manga or cartoons in general, and it also shows that anime can be much more than simple childish gags and splatter blood violence. Neon Genesis Evangelion takes you into yourself and beyond through speculative animation.

James E. Parsons has his first SF book Orbital Kin out now in paperback/ebook from most good bookshops. His second book, Minerva Century is due out in 2016.