Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "All that Glitters" (April 6, 1966)

In “All that Glitters” the men of the Robinson party, save for Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris), have left the encampment in the chariot in search of drinking water for the settlement.

Back at the base, Smith and Penny (Angela Cartwright) encounter a fugitive from the law, Ohan (Larry Ward), who is being chased by a galactic law enforcement officer, Bolix (Werner Klemperer).   
Bolix reports that Ohan has stolen the universe’s greatest treasure, and that he has been sent to retrieve it.

Smith finds the treasure and quickly uses it.  It is a ring he wears around his neck that can turn any object he touches into platinum…

Well, I believe the writers of Lost in Space knew, without a doubt, that they had descended into the trash heap with this episode: “All that Glitters.”  

Why?  One of the guest characters is named Bolix (pronounced “bollocks”).  And this episode -- the fourth in a row to highlight a blundering Dr. Smith in a central role -- is absolute bollocks indeed.

Let’s just take the episode apart a piece at a time.

First, we learn that Officer Bolix is a representative of a galactic law enforcement agency.  He shows a badge, and has two guard-dog wookie creatures as companions. He reports that he has been watching the Robinsons for some time, and is familiar with all of them, including Smith. He has files on them all, apparently.

Okay, then why doesn’t he offer to transport them to safety, to another world that is part of his civilization?  

Even more importantly, why don’t the Robinsons -- when confronted with a police officer -- ask to be taken to his home world, so they can either return to Earth or continue on their original journey? 

 In short, how come they don’t ask for any help at all, when they so clearly need help?  

Here’s an officer sworn to protect and serve the community…and that includes them! He's a representative of a highly-advanced, galactic civilization!

At the very least, the Robinsons might ask the police officer to send another ship for them, or a supply ship to bring them water, or to know their actual "address" (local star-group, etc.) so they can become a part of the galactic civilization.

But no, “All that Glitters” sees the Robinsons ask no such thing, for no such help.

Secondly, the greatest treasure in the universe is…platinum? 

Once more, “All that Glitters” reveals the series' pervasive unimaginative thinking.  Yes, platinum is valuable here on Earth, but why it would be so valuable out in the galactic culture?  What about star-stuff, for instance?  What about anti-matter? 

There are so many “sci-fi” ideas that could have been used here instead of platinum, but Lost in Space is unnecessarily Earth-centric in its thinking. All aliens we encounter are mere variations of people we know on Earth (pirates, hillbillies, cops and robbers, traders, etc.), and anything of value is something we already know about on Earth. It’s disappointing to say the least.

Still, there are aspects of “All that Glitters” that are worth lauding.  

A certain percentage of Lost in Space episodes play not as science fiction, but as fairy-tale based/fantasy morality plays.  Certainly -- at least in its use of the legend of King Midas -- “All that Glitters” falls into that category. It substitutes Smith for Midas, and platinum for gold, but we absolutely get the idea.  Be careful what you wish for.  Wealth isn't all it is cracked up to be. You can't eat platinum.

Smith promises to learn this lesson, and is as desperate here as we've ever seen him in "All that Glitters."  But by the very next episode, he is acting selfishly again.  There ("Lost Civilization") he steals the chariot's air conditioning unit so he can remain cool! 

Other Lost in Space stories also feature elements of fairy tales and fantasy (consider the Sleeping Beauty angles of “Lost Civilization, for example), and are entertaining to a degree based on their re-use of fantasy or fairy tale tropes.  But the veneer of plausibility, especially in this story, is corrupted to the point that it's difficult to enjoy these creative elements.

Suffice it to say that after four episodes in a row of Smith getting into trouble with aliens and alien artifacts, the series is feeling very old.

"Bolix" indeed!

Next week: “Lost Civilization.”

Cult-Movie Review: Chappie (2015)

Thus far, director Neil Blomkamp’s directing career has followed a predictable pattern.

He had his break-out, wildly imaginative first picture: District 9 (2009). 

Then he experienced a sophomore slump, the two-dimensional Elysium (2012). 

Now he comes roaring back with another imaginative and brawny science fiction vision, Chappie (2015), but critics and audiences still aren’t sold on him, or his world view, and the film has earned mixed reviews.

Next up for Blomkamp is Alien 5, wherein, presumably, he will re-connect with more mainstream tastes.  Blomkamp will thus be afforded the opportunity -- like Colin Trevorrow with Jurassic World -- to revive a once-beloved but dormant franchise, and thereby showcase his ability to send it in fresh and challenging directions.

But Chappie seems the most undeserving of victims in this paradigm because it features more imagination, energy, and heart than most genre films produced during the Age of Superheroes and CGI, excepting, perhaps, the rebooted Planet of the Apes pictures (Rise [2011] and Dawn [2014]). 

Even when Chappie was released earlier this year, virtually all talk of it in the genre and mainstream press was centered on Sigourney Weaver and Alien 5, not the merits or virtues of the film itself.

Yet much like District 9, Chappie is wildly unfettered and anarchic in terms of its visual action. And unlike Elysium, it doesn’t preach about its world view. That world view is substantive and valuable, of course, but you can watch and enjoy the film without it feeling like a lecture on social justice.

Chappie commences, actually, as a metaphor for child-rearing, or parenting, but then, in an ambitious and unexpected turn detour, transforms into a meditation on the very nature of consciousness, of life itself.

In meaningful ways, the narrative concerns the ways that a child who knows love cannot only save or redeem his parents, but change the world too. 

Despite the film’s violence and dystopian imagery, there’s a strong element of hope underlining the often-violent Chappie. Too many science fiction films these days mindlessly accept the status quo, or cynically imagine that nothing will ever change, except for the worse. 

By contrast, Blomkamp’s Chappie reminds us that our everyday actions -- as parents and people -- can alter the shape of destiny, and make the world a better place for future generations. 

Perhaps that description sounds cheesy, or broad, but Chappie moves with such dynamic, determined energy that the audience doesn’t feel talked down to but rather invested -- emotionally and viscerally -- in the details of the story and character.

“He’s not stupid. He’s just a kid.”

In near-future Johannesburg, the tech company Tetravaal has created a robot police force to combat out-of-control crime.  That robot police force is safe from third-party hacking because it takes a special “guard key” to update robot programming.  That guard key is zealously guarded, available to a select few.

Inside the company, two designers report to Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver).

One, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) wishes to update the robot police, known as Scouts, with a form of artificial intelligence.  She denies him permission. 

The other man, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), desires to push his own civil control program, giant remote-controlled gun platforms called MOOSE.

Both men violate orders and proceed with their own agendas. Deon takes the guard key and a broken robot, Scout 22, giving it artificial intelligence, and therefore consciousness.

Moore hatches a plan to sabotage the scouts, and get MOOSE on the city streets.

But Deon’s robot, 22, is captured by a trio of small-time criminals, Ninja (Himself), Yolandi (Yolandi Visser), and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo).  These crooks intend to use the machine, renamed Chappie, in a heist.  They have no choice, really.  They owe a local warlord, Hippo (Brandon Auret) 20 million dollars, and he will kill them if they don’t pay up.

But something unusual happens between Chappie and the criminals. Yolandi begins to see -- as Deon does -- that Chappie is a child, and one who needs nurturing and teaching.  She teaches him about death and the soul, even as Ninja seeks to make him a “cool” gun-slinging force for destruction. 

Chappie must chart his own path, and that path is affected by a terrible discovery.  He is mortal, and will only live for a few more days…

“Anything you want to do in your life, you can do.”

It’s easy to gaze at Chappie and judge it the bastard child of several genre movie influences.

The giant MOOSE assault weapon looks uncomfortably like RoboCop’s (1987) ED-209, and Chappie’s child-like nature and human “soul” may recall, for some, elements of Short Circuit (1985). Chappie’s discovery of impending mortality might be seen, in a way, as an allusion to the replicants in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Beyond those surface values, however, the film charts its own compelling and unique course, much like Chappie himself.

For instance, consider the development of the human characters.  The movie essentially positions two criminals, Ninja and Volandi, as parents, but instead of diagramming these characters in predictable, cookie-cutter ways, the movie actually allows them to grow, just as real parents would in the same situation. Yolandi takes to motherhood quicker and more successfully than Ninja takes to fatherhood, but even he gets there…after a fashion. 

Some of their arguments about their unusual child, Chappie, eerily echo real life conversations I’ve witnessed and participated in. 

How could you do this? He’s just a child!” Yolandi complains at one point, when Ninja pushes Chappie too far.

I didn’t know what would happen,” Ninja answers, defensively.

Ninja keeps making fathering mistakes, and there’s one scene, even, when he scolds his mechanical son for playing with dolls instead of guns. The idea is that Yolandi accepts Chappie without question, looking to nurture and care for him. Ninja, by contrast, wants the robot to grow up in his image: “cool” and a BMF.  At one point, he even gives him bling and spray-paint tats.

But, finally, after lies and set-backs, Ninja also accepts who Chappie is, and comes to love him on those terms. Yolandi helps him get there, but the capacity is inside him, as it is within all of us. Indeed, Ninja makes a valorous last act attempt to sacrifice himself for his family, though it goes terribly wrong. 

In that moment of selflessness, however, Ninja thinks of his own family and its well-being first, not about himself, what he wants, or how Chappie should “be.”

A more typical Hollywood film would not showcase such sympathy and humanity in the development of Ninja, a character who is, after all, also a bloody criminal. The point, nicely left oblique, is that criminals love their children too, and want the best for them. That’s a universal human trait, isn't it?  The same idea comes through, as well, in Chappie’s relationship to his actual maker, Deon.

Deon tries to be a good father as well.  He gives Chappie a book and a painting easel, and tells him he can be whatever he chooses to be.  But Deon also wants to impose roles (don’t commit crimes; don’t hurt anybody), but yet doesn’t provide Chappie the underlying moral reasons for obeying those rules. Chappie discovers those for himself after he wounds a police officer during the heist, and sees the blood and injuries.

One of the most touching scenes in the film involves the growing relationship between Chappie and Deon. Chappie learns that he is fated to die, the victim of a low battery that can’t be replaced. He asks Deon why he made him “just to die,” and Deon replies “How was I supposed to know that you would become you?”

He also shares with Chappie a fundamental fact of existence: we’re all born to die, essentially.  

We can’t move our consciousness from one body to another.  When our body fails, our consciousness dies with it. 

For Chappie this is a terrible fact, but powered by the love of Yolandi -- who explains the soul to him -- he changes the world.  He determines to understand consciousness, not just for him, but for human beings too. 

Although it’s a mighty big leap moving human consciousness into robots, I admired the underlying point of Chappie’s discovery.  His love of his parents -- Deon and Ninja included -- and the utter unacceptability of mortality enable him to think in a new, innovative way.

I believe in my heart that this is the story of human generations.  

Each one is a little more evolved, a little better than the last. Our responsibility to the next generation is to start it off right, with love and respect, with safety and understanding.  Then, as that younger grows and matures, those gifts will be returned tenfold as the children we love push the human race another step forward in terms of technological and moral progress.

The fact that Chappie’s consciousness, and human consciousness as well, can both be moved around, in the film’s final act, suggests something else. 

The soul, or consciousness, isn’t limited to human life. We should know this, already, but somehow we don’t. Look into the eyes of your cat, or dog, and tell me it doesn’t possess a soul.

By extension, the same will be true of inorganic life. Chappie discovers that he has a consciousness, and by implication, a soul.  Watching the film, I felt -- for perhaps the first time, perhaps -- that we will see a discovery like this in our life-times. 

If so, how we treat that artificial life, or consciousness, will prove one of the most important tests of human nature, and human decency. 

Will we treat artificial life like children that we must nurture and teach? Or will we, like Vincent Moore, double-down on outdated religious dogma about life, and dismiss the new life in our midst as somehow being second class?

Moore’s character, actually, reflect the hypocritical nature of many prominent religious men.  He claims to be of deep faith, and yet what he really wants to do is to kill people. He’s psychotic, and that’s why he wants the MOOSE operational; so he can commit murder from a safe distance.

When you see so many professed “faithful” people, either in the Middle East, or here in the States arguing for bloody pre-emptive violence against others, you realize that Chappie isn’t far off the mark in its depiction of spiritual hypocrisy. Vincent Moore lives by a fallacy that too many people live by; the appeal to tradition.  Just because something has always been one way -- man is the believed to be the only creature with a soul, for instance -- that doesn’t mean that belief is good, or accurate.

In two hours, Chappie takes viewers through the whole "human" process of growing up...with a robot. Chappie is born, is loved, and matures into an individual who will make his stamp on the world. The film’s amazing virtue, however, is that it shows us how a person with the right start in life can overcome fallacies, defeat hatred, and make things better.

“How was I supposed to know that you would become you?”

Well, when you get right down to it, isn’t that what all parents are supposed to know, or hope for?


Movie Trailer: Chappie (2015)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Ask JKM a Question: CGI vs. Stop Motion?

A reader and friend, Duanne, writes:

"Your reviews of the Jurassic Park movies have caused me to revisit the old CGI versus Stop Motion argument. 

I admit it. I'm something of a CGI snob.

Sometimes I think it's overrated.

Up until Jurassic Park, all the CGI I saw looked like something a Playstation threw up. Yes, I'm looking at you, Goro from Mortal Kombat. 

Then I saw the dinosaurs and was impressed, though I wouldn't admit it. It could be done right and it could be good. I suspended my disbelief and thought I was looking at an actual living creature giving an actual performance. 

But it didn't affect me the way Stop Motion does. It didn't hit the sweet spot and trigger a geek out. 

Stop Motion was originally considered for Jurassic Park. They used it for the test footage, then decided to go with computer graphics. I would've been perfectly fine with it. I would've eaten it up. I've told people that, and have been promptly shot down.

"No, too old fashioned! Too corny! It wouldn't be the same!" they've said. 

I agree it wouldn't be the same. Probably wouldn't have become the phenomenon it has. 

But it still would've been awesome.

An articulated model is different from a computer graphic. It's a physical object that is built, sculpted, moved, adjusted. It has a tangible quality that's not present in CGI. And they're both better than iguanas with horns and fins attached to them, and men in suits (unless they're from Japan). 

I know some people prefer their dinosaurs more realistic and that's fine. But those fantastical creatures inhabited another world, 

And in my mind, Stop Motion is how they moved. It's what set them apart from from all other life on this earth. It's what made them unique. 


This is a great subject to debate, Duanne.

For me, this issue is a bit like debating a pie made from scratch and a store-bought pie.

On the side of stop-motion animation are the factors of history and nostalgia. 

Many classic, older films, from King Kong (1933) to The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) feature stop-motion animation.  My generation grew up with these films, and so there is some nostalgia for the format and the productions.

Additionally, one can’t deny that stop-motion animation is labor-intensive, and therefore individual. 

Celebrated practitioners such as Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen and Dave Allen poured their blood, sweat, and tears into their special effects creations.  If you grew up reading genre magazines with any regularity you know this is so, and therefore likely carry an appreciation for the individuality and distinction of their work.  

Stop-motion animation is like experiencing, therefore, a pie made from scratch.  There’s a lot of love in the recipe, and in the hard, laborious work.

CGI is still developing, and feels more like a store-bought pie. Rightly or wrongly, the practitioners feel largely anonymous, and there is the impression -- again, rightly or wrongly -- that computers, not human hands, are responsible for all the hard work.  

Some CGI creations are indeed miraculous, but the emotional connection -- at least for my generation -- is not as strong.  CGI feels like a decent store-bought pie, you might conclude.

Also, I should add, CGI seems to have aged faster than stop-motion animation did.

In terms of “what looks better,” or which technique “more powerfully convinces the eye,” it’s largely a draw, I believe, at the risk of raising the ire of the stop motion crowd.  

Stop-motion can look halting, or herky-jerky, and just look at those finger-impressions on King Kong’s hide in the 1933 film!  Once you see them, you can't un-see them!

By contrast, CGI has yet to fully capture and reflect the idea of gravity. Too often, beings or monsters created with CGI don’t seem to obey the laws of physics.  The upshot is that in horror, CGI can be disastrous because you never get a sense of the monster’s flesh, or texture…that it is real, and present in the frame.  

I find CGI less distancing in the science fiction cinema, where my response (fear) isn’t a key element of the work of art.

My son is eight, and he has no dog in this hunt, so he is an impartial observer of both formats. 

He can recognize, at a glance, that something is weird with stop-motion creations.  He can’t put his finger on what it is, but he knows that stop-motion creatures aren’t photo-real, and that they are moving in a way that seems wrong.

Similarly, he has been able to detect -- though not as often -- CGI animation. In particular, we have been watching the re-touched Star Trek (1966-1969) lately, and Joel has been able to sense that there are not models or miniatures involved, for the most part, but rather graphic, moving animations. Sometimes he’ll ask me to freeze a shot of the Enterprise, and then ask me if it is animated. The answer is universally affirmative.

So I think on points, neither really wins. 

How do I feel, personally? 

A combination of different approaches often works best.  Jurassic Park (1993) holds up beautifully, and it is a mix of live-action animatronics, puppetry, and CGI. The dinosaurs in the film look absolutely perfect -- and real -- in my opinion.  

I don’t think the same thing, alas, could have been achieved with stop-motion animation alone at this juncture, or with CGI alone.

I don’t want to be perceived as a generational turn-coat, but the last thing I would want or desire at this point is a return to stop-motion animation, unless a film is acting as an homage or pastiche of past stop-motion pictures.  

I believe CGI will continue to improve -- and it needs to improve -- but like the telepod in David Cronenberg’s The Fly, it doesn’t yet understand the nuances of “flesh.”

The task for artists and filmmakers is to combine approaches -- and lots of them -- in a way that keeps the audience off-guard, and, simultaneously, entranced.

Don't forget to ask me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com.