Tag Archives: science fiction

Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager

The Captains - Star Trek The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager

Captains Picard, Sisko and Janeway

Around the time JJ Abrams semi-reboot of Star Trek was released, back in 2009, I set out on my own ‘on-going mission’ to rewatch (or in some cases watch for the first time) the entirety of the Star Trek TV and film canon.

I’ve already posted reviews of a few of the films (The Wrath of Kahn, First Contact and Insurrection) but here I’m going to focus on what is, for me, the main run of the TV show from the launch of The Next Generation in the mid 80s to the climax of Voyager in the late 90s.

Of course none of these could exist without Gene Roddenberry’s original 1960s show which was certainly groundbreaking in several ways but sadly petered off rather swiftly leading to its cancellation after just three of its five years.

Its success on syndicated repeats though kept the ideas it espoused alive and, following an animated series and the launch of the film series in the late 70s, led to the idea of the series’ first not quite reboot, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Star Trek The Next Generation core crew

Star Trek: The Next Generation crew

While the idea is a little clichéd now (and was even then) ‘TNG‘ set its stall as a real development from the off with bigger budgets and bigger ideas permeating its seven seasons.

While the first few seasons are somewhat hobbled by some of Roddenberry’s more 60s ideals; there’s still a strong streak of the originals idea of a strapping Star Fleet officer having his end away with exotic aliens, they do hint at the greater development beyond.

The opening episodes, Encounter At Farpoint, strongly indicate a lot of this with new life form, Q (John De Lancie for the entire run), putting the human race on trial and exploring morality and ethics in a very obvious way that, as it goes on, becomes a slightly more subtly handled linchpin of the ongoing franchise.

While this is a bit of a one-off at first, as the series’ goes on and we get past the rather two-dimensional introduction to new races like the Ferengi, and on wider television we move into the era or Twin Peaks and The X-Files, things start to coalesce with deeper ideas being investigated in the traditional hard sci-if way of finding things in the future setting to reflect the current world and current ideas.

USS Enterprise-D

USS Enterprise-D

Along with this it introduces some characters who have become not just staples of the Star Trek world but, in some cases, have slipped into broader popular culture.

Of course there’s the crew, led by Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard, who’s phrase ‘make it so’ has entered the pop culture sphere as has the actor who would go on to become Professor X for much of the X-Men film franchise. Another notable character who has crossed over a little is the android crewman, Data (Brent Spiner) and, latterly, Wil Wheaton’s Wesley Crusher.

To my mind though the most important thing TNG gave us was one of the new ‘species’ it introduced, The Borg. Playing on particularly timely obsessions with technology, in many ways they prefigure the likes of The Matrix by a good decade and develop as the show goes on into one of TV’s most interesting villains and continue to develop into one of the main antagonists of Voyager.

Borg

An early example of a Borg drone

As TNG goes on it also develops from a standard ‘monster of the week’ style format into a broader storytelling context that grows into a universe building piece.

In its final episodes this allows it all to come full circle, back to elements introduced in the opening Q story making for a generally satisfying climax before the Enterprise-D crew headed onto the silver screen.

What the universe building also led into was the expansion of the franchise into other series, first Deep Space Nine and then Voyager.

In some ways ‘DS9‘ continues in the style of TNG with standalone episodes making the bulk of the first couple of seasons, but even then there are much more obvious overarching themes at play and heading into different directions than TNG dealt with.

Star Trek Deep Space Nine crew

Deep Space Nine crew

This is particularly focussed around the aftermath of war, foreign policy & diplomacy and religion due to its setting in the recently liberated Bajoran system following a lengthy occupation by the Cardassian Empire.

While all of these are dealt with in a way that still suits early evening prime time TV, DS9 does take things a step further than TNG as it goes on and actual war breaks out, taking up the bulk of the last few seasons in a largely ongoing story (with occasional asides).

In this it gets increasingly ‘dark’ (for wont of a better word) with lead characters even dying a long way into the run in very effective fashion and with the aftermath of this dealt with in surprising depth.

It’s during this that the already impressive practical special effects begin to dabble with CGI and, while rudimentary by today’s standards, it opens up the storytelling into more action oriented territory which is something Star Trek as a whole often lacked.

Deep Space Nine

Deep Space Nine

Thankfully it does this without losing the story or the ideas as has become a problem with over heavy CGI sci-fi since, including, sadly the last couple of Trek films, particularly Star Trek Beyond

While it’s often considered the lesser series, Voyager continues much of this and, in one sense, with the most ambitious concept of all as it launches its crew to the other side of the galaxy and traces their attempts to get home.

Across its seven seasons Voyager does have its wobbles and maybe a few too many moments of apparent luck and coincidentally bumping into past characters that doesn’t fit the epic trek of the ongoing story but, in between it has some of the more interesting stand alone stories as the conceit removes much of the galactic baggage that had built up across TNG and DS9.

Star Trek Voyager crew

Voyager crew

Of course it would be remiss to not also mention that it gives the Trek universe its first female lead in the form of Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) who grows and develops into probably at least an equal to DS9‘s Captian Sisko (Avery Brooks) – I’ll be honest no one is going to best Kirk or Picard.

The last few seasons again provide the highlights as The Borg loom larger and again CGI is used to create things more inventive than a parade of humans with forehead prosthetics (though there are still plenty of them), like Species 8472 who for TV at the time are quite a feat of animation.

What possibly hampers Voyager somewhat is that many of the ideas it explores are just retreads of what we’ve seen before, with new aspects in most cases but it still has a little too much of a hint of repetition, particularly with first the holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo) then former Borg Seven Of Nine’s (Jeri Ryan) explorations of humanity more than echoing TNG’s Data.

Voyager

Voyager

The other thing that feels a shame is that the series ends rather abruptly and, while it satisfies part of the main story, it feels there was more to tell and wrap up before coming to an end.

While it’s obvious that TNG is the superior of the three series in many ways they all have their share of merits and, on my personal ‘trek’ it was the concluding part of DS9 and much of Voyager that provided many highlights, possibly because I had seen them less than TNG.

Along with this though they stand as some of the foundations of the TV renaissance of recent years (along with The X-Files, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and others) that has led to the likes of Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones and the Marvel Netflix shows with wider concepts and ongoing stories becoming the main focus of TV rather than the more easily disposable medium it had previously been.

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2010: The Year We Make Contact

2010 The Year We Make ContactWhile it has been divisive since its release and has been described as everything from plodding and wilfully obscure to visionary there’s no deny that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was and remains a unique work in the sci-fi film canon. At its conclusion however while it certainly asked more questions than it answered I wasn’t left wondering what happens next.

Arthur C. Clarke, the original film’s writer and originator, though had other ideas and several sequels have since emerged in print, one of which, 2010 Odyssey Two, was made into a sequel to the original movie in 1984 as 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

From the start it’s clear that Peter Hyams’ film is much more down to earth and straight forward than its predecessor as we arrive on earth in the titular year and meet Dr Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider), the originator of the Discovery mission from the first film.

From there he joins a mission to investigate the loss of the Discovery led by a joint group of Russian and American scientists and astronauts – unfortunately at the same time the two countries stand on verge of war, the Cold War seemingly not having been resolved as occurred in the real world.

Unfortunately while 2001 is, for the most part, timeless, 2010 feels immediately dated, not just by its ongoing Cold War setting but by the production design that couldn’t look more 80s if it tried.

Roy Scheider

Roy Scheider

Usually I find this easy to look over but something here made that hard, possibly it was the rather obvious story that, while described as a thriller, never really thrilled on any level and any political intrigue that could have existed never properly manifested.

Meanwhile the mystery of the monolith felt like a side-show until the third act at which point its effect became a bit too obvious – particularly when compared to the enigmatic climax of 2001.

Despite a strong cast featuring Helen Mirren, John Lithgow and more alongside Scheider it was hard to really get more than an archetypical view of their characters and it was only the returning voice of HAL 9000 and Keir Dullea’s lost astronaut David Bowman that had any real presence.

As they only show up in the third act properly (though are hinted at throughout) this made the first part harder work than it should have been.

Leonov encounters Discovery

Leonov encounters Discovery

Though the climax came with some nice Jupiter based visuals I couldn’t escape the feeling it was all a bit too obvious, and while it left avenues for more sequels and its message of unity is an important and worthy one, compared to both its predecessor and other sci-fi of the time 2010 falls somewhat flat.

So, while it’s not a total disaster and was mildly diverting it was nothing more, which I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by.

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Hello America by JG Ballard

Hello America by J.G. Ballard book coverIt seems that the notion of The American Dream is one that keeps cropping up in my reviews recently, most notably with La La Land and Straight Outta Compton, so it feels natural, if strangely coincidental, that I now look at a book that seems to take that dream and turn it into a kind of twisted nightmare.

While J.G. Ballard is well-known for his dystopian science fiction visions from the likes of High-Rise and Crash, Hello America was not one I was familiar with when its blurb and cover caught my eye, but from the off its clear that it bears certain resemblances to the story of Lang in the tower block.

Here our hero is Wayne, a young stowaway from a back to basics Europe of the 2100’s, who has snuck aboard a vessel sailing for an evacuated USA. It’s 100 years since North America was abandoned in the face of an energy crisis as oil ran dry and the once most powerful nation on Earth was laid to waste by climactic devastation.

Arriving in this New World wasteland Wayne and the members of the expedition head off from a derelict New York to Washington DC and beyond.

The journey and the relatively mysterious lead male protagonist are certainly familiar from High-Rise, though Wayne feels far more sympathetic than Lang and the eventual arrival of the equivalent to Royal reveals a far less sympathetic antagonist. Along with this the general sense of growing disaster as the story goes on is similar to High-Rise but on a far grander physical scale.

JG Ballard

JG Ballard

What sets it apart is a sense of optimism, particularly in the first half, where Wayne’s vision of ‘The American Dream’ is infectious and really sucked me into the adventure, much as it does some of his fellow travellers, and the way Ballard paints the landscape of the ‘Great American Desert’ is masterful and hugely visual.

The first half of the book builds the tension to breaking point with what feels like a climax in the depth of the desert before Ballard throws a marvellous curve ball that almost resets things but goes on in eventually more disturbing and absurd ways as Wayne’s dream becomes a real American Nightmare – to say much more would be too much of a spoiler.

The fact that Wayne dreams of being 45th president of the USA is particularly pertinent given recent real world events, but that’s just a ‘happy’ coincidence, but there is clearly a political message at the heart of Ballard’s writing coming as this did at a time when a former film star had recently entered The White House.

Hello America original artwork

The cover of the first edition of Hello America

As well as the politics there is an ecological message which is writ large and obvious throughout though has lost none of its necessity and power since the book was released in the early 1980s and some slightly heavy-handed consumerist points add another layer.

All of this does make Hello America‘s purpose a little unfocused but it is certainly trying to say something and, generally, succeeding.

Where it doesn’t succeed quite so well is in the second half of the story that almost becomes too absurd to take seriously, though it just about holds things together as it reaches a hugely tense and surprisingly cinematic climax – I’m amazed no one has twisted this into a big budget blast-a-thon blockbuster.

This makes Hello America a book that, while easier to read than High-Rise, less physically controversial than Crash and a little unfocused, is none the less enjoyable and bridges hard sci-fi ideals with readable adventure in a very satisfying fashion.

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Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond posterBack when JJ Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise with the ingenious time twisting Star Trek back in 2009, adding a modern, action-adventure edge to the formula laid out by Gene Roddenberry in the mid-1960s and developed through to the 1990s, it seemed the series had found a new life.

However following Star Trek Into Darkness, a film that while enjoyable was riddled with plot inconsistencies and riffed a little too much of the series stone cold classic The Wrath Of Kahn, it seemed it had all lost steam as Abrams headed off to breath new life into Star Wars with The Force Awakens.

With Justin Lin at the helm Star Trek Beyond hit cinemas in 2016 with somewhat less fanfare, dwarfed by ‘the other Star franchise’, and so catching it now at home my expectations were somewhat lower…

Left to right: Chris Pine plays Kirk, Sofia Boutella plays Jaylah and Anton Yelchin plays Chekov in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment

Kirk (Pine), Jaylah (Boutella) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin)

Interestingly for those of us who’ve followed the series for a long time, Beyond starts out three years into the Enterprise’s first five-year mission as Kirk and his crew are exploring the boundaries of the Federation.

Here they encounter a new alien aggressor with, as one would expect, a suitably weaponised maguffin to kick off the kind of action adventure we’ve come to expect.

As expected it is Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) who provide the main core of the film but even more so than previously the rest of the main crew are all part of the action, particularly Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) all having more pivotal roles. On top of this we meet new character, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who fits in well with the established cast.

star trek beyond krall

Krall (Elba)

Scripted by Pegg and Doug Jung, Beyond is, for the most part, all fairly formulaic and never really does anything to break the mould of either the previous two films, or big budget blockbusters in general but for the most part is a fun romp. That said it relies a little too heavily on the action side for Star Trek which loses something of what makes the original series what it is.

On top of this it suffers from having an antagonist who never really feels properly threatening as, while Idris Elba’s Krall starts off looking fairly mean and nasty, it’s not long before he becomes somewhat ineffectual leading to a denouement strongly reminiscent of Into Darkness but I never had the sense that Kirk and co wouldn’t prevail.

bones and spock

Bones (Urban) and Spock (Quinto)

There are also moments that put this clearly post-Guardians of the Galaxy giving it an occasional ‘wacky’ tone that doesn’t really suit, including a fairly major and pivotal music cue.

Despite all this Star Trek Beyond was a fun way to spend a couple of hours and while it won’t stick in the memory like some of its forbears, it maintains some of their essence, but for a third film in a row the highlight is Quinto’s Spock.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story posterOver the last 40 years it’s fair to say that the galaxy of Star Wars has become something of a safe space for family friendly action adventure cinema – certainly there has been plenty of peril but in the end it’s always been a good old romp of heroes overcoming villains in the most ‘white hat’ wearing of ways.

So, as the famous line ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ appeared on the screen at the start of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story there was a familiar sense of anticipation for more of the same.

As soon as that faded though it was clear this wasn’t exactly what we’ve come to expect from Star Wars – gone was the orchestral blast and iconic, scene setting ‘crawl’ as we were dropped to a new, fairly desolate, planet and a new set of characters, in this case the Erso family, hastily followed by new Imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and a squadron of Death Troopers, a kind of black clad, amped up version of the Stormtroopers of old.

Here we meet our hero Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and, along with her, witness the death of her mother and apparent capture of her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), followed by here being rescued by mysterious apparent-Rebellion member Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker).

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones)

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones)

While this has overtones of the introduction of Luke Skywalker in A New Hope the whole thing has a much greater sense of danger, and this is something that continues throughout the movie as Jyn and her rag-tag band of rebels visit various planets new and old in their hunt for the plans to a rumoured Imperial super weapon.

While this story is all very exciting there are moments where it lapses into video game plotting but for the most part these are easy to overlook.

Despite the inter-planetary setting and background of the rebellion against the empire Rogue One has a much smaller feel than the main run of the series with a focus on Jyn’s story as she discovers the rebellion with the help of pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Krennic’s role in the creation of the Death Star.

This gives a lot of background to things we’ve heard mentioned in past films so, while not integral to the over arching plot (that chronological begins in The Phantom Menance and, at this stage, continues to The Force Awakens) it is interesting to see and with predominantly new characters doesn’t feel like it’s treading on the toes of the Skywalker saga like some other prequels have done.

Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)

Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)

Added to this, also setting it apart from the previous Star Wars films, is a genuinely political edge. While the Empire remains undeniably ‘evil’ (how could anything led be Darth Vader and The Emperor be anything but), shades of grey are added to the Rebellion.

While this doesn’t cause any effect to the grand run, it gives Rogue One a slightly different angle on things that makes it feel more down to earth and, in a sense, more grown up, reflecting, as it goes, something of real world religious and ideological conflict (though it is more general in this than specific).

Even if some of the new characters are somewhat basically drawn, much like side characters in the other Star Wars films, their stereotypical nature make them easy to get behind so, when we reach the third act, there is a genuine sense of tension, even though we have a fair idea of the final outcome.

Battle of Scarif

Battle of Scarif

This third act also includes some of the bravest story moments since The Empire Strikes Back and possibly even tops that, something rare to see in a world of ‘happily ever after’ blockbusters from the likes of Marvel.

Where the film falters is in its overuse of call backs to the original trilogy. Hints and suggestions would have been nice but a few are just too on the nose and detract from the final product.

Most notable among these are a slightly too uncanny valley computer generated version of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin (surely he could have been seen as a hologram thus losing any realism issues) and a Darth Vader who somehow just doesn’t feel quite right, though finally getting to see his much rumoured Sith Temple/castle was a nice if unnecessary touch.

Death Star strikeWhat this all amounts to is a genuinely exciting ride with enough grit around the edges to make it something a bit different while maintaining enough of what we love about Star Wars to make a fine couple of hours in the cinema, though this one may not be for all the family in the way that the main series is.

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Arrival

Arrival movie posterIt’s always a treat when the chance arises to see a film with very little foreknowledge. In that regard in a world of Marvel cookie cutter repetition and uninspiring sci-fi blockbusters Arrival made for a nice change, as all I knew going in was that it was sci-fi and it had generally favourable reviews.

I will admit that the fact it starred Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner didn’t fill me with hope, while I don’t recall seeing either be actively bad, nothing springs to mind that I’ve seen that made me excited by their presence.

Forest Whitaker is equally one of those actors who never seems to play a bad role but here wasn’t the driving force of the movie and was in what gets called a ‘character actor’ kind or part.

All three here though were very good but Adams was a particular stand out as she is the linchpin of the film not only for the narrative, but also the central point of the ideas it deals with.

The narrative is, as I have suggested a fairly standard science fiction trope of ‘first contact’. A mysterious set of space craft appear in 12, apparently random, locations around the planet and military and scientific experts proceed to try to and work out what they want with the usual mix of aggressive posturing and paranoid conspiracy.

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival

Amy Adams as Louise Banks

On this level there is the added extra of a reflection of what’s become known as ‘post-truth’ with the CIA, ‘alt-right’ media and (slightly stereotypical) international tensions all present forming the background to the other narrative centring on Adams’ linguist, Louise Banks.

This other aspect is hard to discuss without spoilers, other than to say it deal with perceptions of time and human nature in regards of free will and determinism. What makes it particularly good is that it does what the best sci-fi does, in the way of 2001 or Close Encounters, it leaves the audience open to discuss what they’ve just seen while answering enough questions to be satisfying.

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in Arrival

Adams and Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly

This is the films biggest strong point as, while the basic plot and performances, along with the special effects, are all engaging it is how it gets your mind ticking over that is Arrival’s most impressive feature (that said I’m not sure mid-afternoon in a busy city makes for the most conducive way of watching it in that regard).

Arrival exists as a stand out of recent sci-fi for two reasons; first it is a compelling story that is genuinely absorbing and constantly leaves the viewer in suspense of what is to come, the other is the sense of raising open questions that already have me wanting to see the film again and discuss it with others who have seen it, and most of this comes through a stand out performance from Adams that is, at its best, genuinely effecting.

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High Rise

high rise kaleidoscope posterBefore watching this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, all I knew of director Ben Wheatley was, by way of reputation, that he is the kind of filmmaker to not flinch away from things either visually or conceptually. After watching High Rise, I can certainly confirm that holds true.

Set in a near-future mid-1970s the film follows Laing (Tom Hiddleston) upon his arrival in a newly built, state of the art, high-rise apartment block through to an arguably abstract conclusion that is hinted at in the film’s opening scene. In this scene we see a blood stained Hiddleston stalking the corridors of the flat-block and apparently relaxing on his balcony despite the suggested chaos surrounding him.

While I’m not familiar with the book I am, again, aware of Ballard by reputation and his science fiction based explorations of the extremes of human nature and generally negative changes in ongoing human society. Wheatley’s High Rise fits this perfectly and Hiddleston is the eye of this particular storm.

While the film does tell a story it is at times fairly lose with jumps in events occurring with seemingly no rhyme or reason but serving to develop what is its main aspect, an atmosphere of sheer unease that pervades everything.

Tom Hiddleston

Tom Hiddleston

At first things seem relatively naturalistic as we meet Laing and various of his neighbours from the upper-middle class Charlotte (Sienna Miller), to the more working class Wilder (Luke Evans) and his family to the tower’s architect, Royal, (Jeremy Irons) who suitably lives in the penthouse with his distant wife and a horse.

This class divide is something that runs through the whole film and, while it clearly comes from a place reflecting its original 1970s setting, it still rings true now, especially as it looks at how the supposed upper classes use those ‘beneath’ them to distract from what they are doing and how decadent and corrupt they are. That is to simplify things a bit, but Wheatley paints a condensed picture of this real world dynamic excellently.

The way the uneasy atmosphere develops pulls in all aspects of the film from the script and performance to music, design and editing reminding me in many ways of how Stanley Kubrick would use the film as a whole giving the sense that everything that we experience is intentionally there and not left to chance.

Luke Evans

Luke Evans

Particularly impressive here is the soundtrack that switches from various covers of ABBA (including an amazing version of SOS from Portishead) to deep soundscapes that do a great job of unsettling the viewer as the film escalates.

Along with Hiddleston’s Laing, Evan’s Wilder is a cornerstone of the film and gives a performance that starts out like something from a 70s cop show and grows into something brutally visceral, acting as something of a counterpoint to Laing.

Aside from the bigger names High Rise features a host of recognizable performers some of whom stand out by being almost a part of the unsettling atmosphere as much as they are characters in their own right. In particular Reece Shearsmith’s sadistic dentist Steele (like Steve Martin in Little Shop of Horrors but with a serious bureaucratic coldness) and Louis Suc as Charlotte’s son Toby who appears to have more of an idea of what’s going on than anyone else.

High Rise

The High Rise

As its goes on it becomes clear that High Rise is speaking in abstract terms as well as naturalistic ones and led to me questioning the source of the mania developing amongst the tower block’s inhabitants.

Like all the best unsettling films this is never wholly explained but various things are hinted at that left me wondering not just what the source would be but what that means in a wider sense away from the movie.

In the end High Rise is a lesson in just how to deliver an uncompromising vision in film in the most complete way I’ve seen in quite some time. It is at once brutal, visceral, disturbing and thought-provoking and has proved to me what everyone else seems to already know, that Wheatley (and his filmmaking partner Amy Jump) are possibly the best all round filmmakers working in Britain today.

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The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. DickOver the second half of 2016 the title The Man In The High Castle and (to a lesser extent) the name of its author, Philip K. Dick, came into the mainstream possibly more than ever thanks to an Amazon TV series adaptation of the novel. With that in mind I thought I’d take my first step into the written world of the man who inspired films such as the classic Blade Runner (based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).

Thankfully going in I knew the basics and little more. The Man In The High Castle takes place in a United States of America (predominantly San Francisco) in an alternate reality where it wasn’t ‘The Allies’ but ‘The Axis’ who, for want of a better word, won the Second World War and divided the globe between themselves. Most obviously here the USA being split in three with the Nazis running the East Coast, the Japanese on the West Coast and a buffer zone in between remaining relatively neutral.

Within this geographical, political framework, the book follows three loosely connected stories that, for the most part, deal with a trio of protagonists simply trying to live their lives, though the political and social intrigue of a paranoid world constantly on the verge of another, seemingly more final, world war, soon sets bigger wheels in motion for all three. To say much more would spoil what is a true feat of intricate and effective storytelling.

Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick

Other than an astonishing level of readability – I’ll admit I thought it might be a bit of a slog being ‘hard sci-fi’ but it flew by – what really stood out in The Man In The High Castle is the ‘alternate reality’ setting, with ‘reality’ being the keyword.

Throughout I got the impression that Dick was extrapolating the events, set in the early 1960s, based on genuine history and what was known at the time of Axis plans had things gone the other way, combined with a few crucial but plausible ‘what ifs’ and just enough fanciful thinking.

This makes for a richly textured world that, while set in a relatively small region, paints a picture of an oppressed planet with hints and stories of the situation in Europe, Africa, Asia, and even off planet, that combine to be genuinely haunting.

Laced throughout the linear side of the story is a clever method of adding a more philosophical nature, initially starting with the inclusion of Chinese and Japanese religion but culminating in some bigger thoughts and questions being asked, but crucially, never directly answered.

The Man In The High Castle - San Francisco

San Francisco as seen in the TV series

Having not seen the TV series of the same name I was left wondering how The Man In The High Castle could ever be transferred to screen in any kind of mainstream way, but that is a strong part of what makes it such a great book.

It deals with issues and asks questions in a way more mainstream media rarely can and combines that with a great, intrigue driven, story that was hard to put down and left my mind feeling challenged in just the right ways.

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Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Star Wars - The Force Awakens posterBefore we get to the review I want to give it a little context. This was written based on my initial thoughts after a midnight screening on release day. For a film that is part of a series that has genuinely meant a huge amount to me over the years I realise aspects may be skewed by this, on top of which I have done my utmost to avoid any ‘spoilers’ – so without further ado my thoughts on The Force Awakens.

Simply heading into the cinema for the first midnight screening in living memory in Guernsey would have made this an exceptional event. The fact that the film that had sold our modest four-screener was the new film in the Star Wars saga made it something entirely other.

The Lucasfilm logo, that opening sentence in blue on black and then John Williams signature orchestral blast and the yellow words floating before a star field and instantly it was clear everyone in the cinema was back in the far off galaxy, but here is where the real nerves set in.

The ‘opening crawl’ of the (rightly) much-maligned prequel trilogy had very much set the tone for the poorly written, pointlessly over complicated, story of the fall of Anakin Skywalker. Here though, as soon as the first sentence appeared it was clear things were as they should be and the air of relief was nearly palpable.

X-Wings - The Force Awakens

X-Wing fighters

From there, epic space opera reigned for two and a bit hours as we charted the exploits of the Resistance against the First Order, loosely mirroring the Rebel Alliance and Empire of the original, classic, trilogy. This is something that is a trademark of The Force Awakens.

Throughout, from characters to locations to plot points, there are reflections of what is already familiar. The real trick that makes them work is these reflections are twisted just enough to balance familiarity with something new, vibrant, energetic and modern. In many ways exactly what director JJ Abrams did with his Star Trek movies, but here even more successfully – as if his previous big screen blockbusters had been something of a warm up act.

As with the original trilogy it is the characters that stand out and our trio of ‘new recruits’, Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron, echo their earlier counterparts of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa and Han Solo in unexpected ways, while that original trio also make a return.

Rey and Finn on Jakku - The Force Awakens

Rey and Finn on Jakku

Again the art here is in balance, enough homage is paid to the characters we already know but never at the expense of the new set who all come to the fore and are as relatable and engaging as they could be.

Along with this Rey (Daisy Ridley) shows signs of becoming a true blockbuster movie heroine the likes of which I really don’t ever remember seeing in such a mainstream family movie (the nearest potential touchstone is Ellen Ripley in the Alien series).

When it comes to the villains there is a host of English accented First Order officers and then there is Kylo Ren. Ostensibly this movie’s Darth Vader it soon becomes clear that is to do a disservice to both characters as Adam Driver brings an entirely different presence and take on the dark side of the force to anything we have yet seen, hinting at even more development of the light vs. dark dynamic than ever before.

Of course it wouldn’t be Star Wars without droids. Two droids were the linchpin of the original trilogy and it seems a new astromech is here to add to them in the form of ‘ball droid’ BB-8.

BB-8 - The Force Awakens

BB-8

On a technical level the apparently mostly physical prop is amazing and I still can’t quite work out how they made it and where the lines of real and CGI are.

In terms of character BB-8 is a genuinely effecting, adorable and above all fun character who, much like R2-D2 did nearly 40 years ago, becomes as integral a character as any of his human counterparts.

Humour is another strong factor in The Force Awakens as, while it is arguably one of the most emotionally intense films in the series, it is also by far and away the funniest.

A particularly striking thing about this is, rather than coming from a designated ‘comic relief’ character, all the hero characters have light and shade in this area, echoing Han Solo in the original films, and in fact here, as Harrison Ford seems to not just be playing ‘General’ Solo but is the Corellian smuggler in a genuinely uncanny way.

In terms of plot it’s hard to discuss much without spoiling things (and I really don’t want to be the guy who does that), but it takes a similar arc to A New Hope with the Resistance working to stop the First Order in their plan to regain control of the galaxy. Again though this is all twisted just enough to make it fresh, exciting and genuinely unpredictable at points.

Kylo Ren - The Force Awakens

Kylo Ren

All of this combines to create something truly special the like of which I haven’t felt in a very long time. Not only is The Force Awakens an epic science fiction/fantasy, it takes every aspect of filmmaking and combines them in the best way a blockbuster picture can.

The performances are pitch perfect (though a few take time to build and coalesce), the script is the right balance of exposition, fun and thrilling suspense and the special effects are second to none.

With this, almost most importantly, the sense of the world in which all the action takes place is one that even its creator once seemed to have lost as JJ Abrams truly returns us to the Star Wars world for the first time since 1983 and, in doing so, shows up the Marvel movies, Transformers and any other of their blockbuster ilk as the pretenders that they are.

Chewbacca and Han Solo - The Force Awakens

Chewbacca and Han Solo

All this said, The Force Awakens is, of course, not quite perfect – there are a few intriguing plot holes and occasional clunky exposition – but it is as close as it likely ever could be and, as well as being an exciting picture in its own right, sets the scene for potentially even greater things to come.

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Blade Runner – The Final Cut

Blade Runner posterRidley Scott’s Blade Runner has long been regarded a masterpiece of science fiction that, along with Alien, cemented his reputation as a major director and helped establish the more thoughtful brand of sci-fi that Star Wars had done its best to knock off the mainstream radar in the late 1970s.

For me though the 1982 ‘sci-fi noir’ has always been something of an enigma – raved about by seemingly one and all but never quite clicking with me – so, on getting the chance the to see the movie in a good quality cinema (the BFI at the NFT) I was excited to see if I could finally break through all the talk and get to the actual film underneath.

I’m please to say that not only did that happen, but that I discovered the excellent movie everyone else was going on about too.

Telling the story of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the Blade Runner of the title, as he investigates and hunts down an escaped group of android ‘replicants’, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) the plot, as in much ‘grown up’ sci-fi is used as a framework on which to hang ideas and, in the case here in particular, some very impressive visuals.

Harrison Ford as Deckard - Blade Runner

Deckard

That’s not to discredit the story that is engaging and drives along at a great pace without over egging anything, which a story like this might, and certainly is part of why Blade Runner is referred to as ‘sci-fi noir’ and is quite so enjoyable.

The noir aspect though is certainly most visible in the film’s production design, by Syd Mead and Lawrence G. Paull, that evokes a ‘near future’ mega-city style Los Angeles with oil fields giving way to enormous, 1984-like, pyramids and narrow, busy, rain drenched streets populated by people of all kinds in which our hard-boiled ‘hero’ is found.

The design has become something so replicated in later movies I thought it might lose something, but it still holds its impressive place and it is clear that little that has come since has bettered (or even approached it) as it combines aspects of many styles into a great whole with a balance that other movies have tried but, generally, not succeeded.

blade runner batty Rutger Hauer

Batty

Into this world comes a the group of escaped replicants, who have returned to Earth from their off-world postings to seek out their creator and, essentially, try to answer many of the ‘big questions’ humans have always asked. As with a lot of great sci-fi this is clearly a prism through which we may seek answers (or more questions) based around the themes.

Over the years many themes and discussions have been found in Blade Runner but the one that struck me most is, it would seem, the one that the original source (Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep) deals with, and that is notions of existence and personal identity, along with the big question of the meaning and purpose of our existence.

Los Angeles - Blade Runner

Los Angeles

This is all summed up beautifully and comes to a head as Deckard’s hunt climaxes when he confronts Batty face to face on the roof of a dilapidated building in driving rain in what has become known as the ‘Tears In Rain’ monologue. As well as being an impressive piece of performance from Hauer it brings the whole story round on its head by actually making the de facto ‘bad guys’ into genuinely empathic and relatable characters that again builds on the movie’s themes.

Along with a supreme piece of projection work thanks to the BFI Blade Runner has certainly leapt into the list of some of the most impressive and enjoyable films I‘ve seen as it pulls together all aspects of its production (with the music by Vangelis being another highly impressive factor) into something astonishing.

Origami unicornAnd its all capped off by an enigmatic final scene that leaves some questions intentionally unanswered while posing even more, without feeling like sequel bait or making the rest of the movie feel like its been undermined.

A sequel is now of course in the works, but how that deals with these questions will be a big factor in its success of failure it would seem…

And here’s the Tears In Rain scene (probably best not watched if you haven’t seen the rest of the movie):

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