Movie Review: The Machine

In a previous post I derided the sometimes formulaic plot of the robot who wants to be a human, a story that’s at least as old as Disney’s little puppet boy. I was saddened that the same story seemed to have been repeated ad nauseum all this time with little variation. How many times did we need the same idea repeated to us?  It’s a kind of ego-stroking for the audience, and we just like to see something else trying to figure out what it means to be human, but at the same time it holds us back from exploring other ideas, at least from what I’ve seen in most movies and TV.

The Machine is somewhat different from that idea, at least to some extent. It stars Toby Stephens and Caity Lotz (of Arrow) as brilliant scientists looking to perfect Prostheses and eventually a complete artificial lifeform. When Lotz’ character dies, her brain is uploaded to a robot body, and then the fun begins. There’s the expected military connection and evil director played by the brilliantly slimy Denis Lawson, (who I’ve only just learned was in the original Star Wars). For a film with only 3 main characters to do the heavy lifting, it’s quite engrossing.

The artificial being is never really referred to as anything other than the “Machine”, and while it does ask many questions about emotions, our reactions and has a very childlike response to most of the things she encounters. She doesn’t show any real desire to be human, but does try to not be the weapon she’s designed to become in the end. I think you know how the story ends, but she brings real depth to what could be a shallow or simple character. In fact, she’s an actress who will have a bright future and hopefully overcome the unfortunate tendency of some young women to be relegated as “scenery.” Toby Stephens is an actor who’s had a long and successful career, and he does an excellent job here as well, playing a brilliant scientist who for once doesn’t want to create robots for an evil purpose. He has a real weight of intelligence about him, enough that he can believably play a top-notch scientist.

All in all it’s a fun and engaging film, and while it doesn’t strictly break any new ground as far as the human/robot relationship, it is far enough away from the Johnny 5 and Robocop model to bring a fresher perspective to the story.

 

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Neill Blomkamp’s “Chappie”: No Gray Robots

Neill Blomkamp, the creator of District 9 and Elysium, is working on a new film called Chappie , about a group of scientists who create a robot who can think and feel for itself, and about its struggles to learn and find its place in the world.

I’ve watched the trailer, which is all that we know about the movie so far, and thusly of course it’s hard to make a full discussion about the film just based on those few minutes. However, the trailer itself seems so trite and empty that it makes me want to discuss it, and to a larger extent the “genre”, if we can call it that, of the Pinocchios, of things not alive that want to be human, and it seems to me that there’s a lot of ground these films don’t cover-these A.I.s want to be adorable and human, as in the case of Johnny 5, the Iron Giant, Machine,  Pinocchio himself, and a half-dozen I’m not thinking of at this moment, not to mention the ones that have aliens instead of robots as the central figure.

I’m trying really hard not to be a cynical bastard. I’m not seeing anything new or amazing or original here. “Artificial intelligence is too unpredictable!” Are there evil robots in this world? Sorry, I know, if you don’t like it why comment? It’s just that I’d like to see a film about a robot who doesn’t want to be human but instead explore what it means to be a robot. It seems like we either have good or evil, not both, and that’s just too simplistic. Humans aren’t all evil or good, why should something that wants to BE human fall into those narrow areas?Are our only options Ultron or Chappie, Data or Lore? Is there only black or white?

I suppose it’s the same reason there are so many cookie-cutter action films and rom-coms and horror films: the studios know what works and is safe and profitable. There’s no problem with this approach, since it’s a business and risks without rewards are not a winning prospect if you want to make money. I just feel that there’s such a rich and unexplored area here that could be the basis for good films that would make a buck AND make us think, and people are being sold short on the possibilities, which is a disservice to everyone concerned. Johnny 5 can be alive, but what happens next? That’s the story I want to see, the robot teenage years, not just the miracle of artificial birth. It’s easy to make us cry, harder to make us think.

 

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The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

I’ve mentioned before here about books that were cornerstones of my life and influenced my life and views in some way or another. When you stumble upon a book that has this effect, it’s a wonderful feeling, in that it will make you wonder, whether for good or bad. A book that opens your eyes in some way is a rare beast, and of course no book will be one of THOSE books for the same people. I’ve convinced my mom to read Watership Down because I loved it, but I’m skeptical that it will be as remarkable for her as it was for the young me.

The Daughter of Time was one of those books for me in another way. Not because of the remarkable characters involved (there aren’t any) or the magnificent writing (it’s a rather breezy style, only taking a few sentences to sketch things out, competent but not groundbreaking. That’s not to say that she was a bad writer in general or that her other books were no good-she wrote so often and was clearly so comfortable with writing that the talent is there. It’s just that the story and characters were just the means to an end for the book. No, the real treasure here that blew up my young brain was the subject matter.

Shakespeare was reasonably entertaining to me as a high schooler, not dreaded but not loved. That was until we got to Richard III. I’ve always liked the bad guys, the Sith, the supervillians. Heck, I’m wearing a Bizarro shirt as I write this. And Richard of Gloucester was and is one of the best-known villains of all literature. I enjoyed his book, and if you have the opportunity to watch Ian McKellen as Richard, please do so as soon as possible. I actually liked reading the play and I enjoyed the wickedness of the central character, without ever once taking it as more than simply a play.

After we finished the play, the teacher who hadn’t assigned the play (we had two English teachers who worked alternating days-I never quite figured out why this was so) passed out copies of this book. I was hesitant, since a brief and incorrect reading of the back gave me the mistaken impression it was an actual historical mystery set in Shakespeare’s time.

I was very wrong. The book itself is about an invalid English detective who is bored out of his mind and sets about investigating the notoriously bad reputation of Richard out of a sense of curiosity. He’s joined in the search by an eager American graduate student who manages to dig up a lot of interesting backstory on all of the characters in the play, as well as the times and events where they lived. As I said before, the setting and main characters in this book don’t matter, since they are the means by which Tey sets forth her arguments for Richard’s innocence, and that’s the part that left its impression on me so strongly.

I don’t know if Richard was innocent-I haven’t done enough study of the subject. Tey lays down what looks to be a strong argument of it, and I can’t refute any of it. No, it was the investigation itself that really got to me; that something can be well-known, read by millions of people and accepted as true by millions more, and be totally wrong. Call me naive, but the idea of the complexity of history, or the idea that everything we know or are told are only part of the true story, was something that had never really stuck home until then for some reason. Obviously I hadn’t known much about politics until then either.

The book itself is an easy read, written as I’ve said as an exposition piece for the main idea of Richard’s story, and expects you to be at least passingly familiar with the main characters in the play. That aside, it takes the whole thing pretty slowly and goes easy on the heavy historical research for people new to the idea. Tey was not apparently a member of the Richard III Society, a group dedicated to the study and hopeful exoneration of the monarch, but her book is certainly sympathetic to their views and goals. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in historical scholarship, Richard III, or Shakespeare in general.

 

 

 

 

 

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Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History by James Morone

Looking over my posts on this blog, I’ve noticed that I’ve done a ton of fiction & fantasy books. Don’t misunderstand, I like fiction & fantasy books. It’s just that spreading my wings is a good thing, so I’ve started reading more historical books and such recently, something I’ve gotten away from for no good reason.

Hellfire Nation is a book that at first was intimidating to me because of its size; this is a doorstopper, but given the weighty subject matter it’s not surprising. What’s nice is that Morone’s writing is very readable and easy to enjoy; he makes what might otherwise be a heavy or daunting book quite interesting. I’m also a fan of books that examine some unusual facet of society or culture that isn’t often examined, or isn’t examined in great detail (for example, a book I want to review soon is about the social habits of the rich vs. that of animals).

As the title states, the idea of sin has been a popular weapon to be used to demonize the “other side”, as seen during the Witch Trials, the censorship of Comstock, Prohibition, white slavery and other “moral outrages” right up to the modern era, and is a proud tradition fully embraced and applied to politics and social media today by both parties, though I’ll freely admit to being a loyal Democrat and feel that the extreme right today is much more blatant and brutal in their use of this technique. However, this is not a political blog (though I have and am considering creating one) and so I will leave it at that in this review.

In essence Morone discusses the origins of American exceptionalism from a moral standpoint; he quotes and uses as a main theme and underlying idea Puritan John Winthrop’s statement that America should be a “city on a hill”, and the recurring idea in American history of “us” vs. “them,” whether it’s immigrants, slaves, city and country people, or religious and political groups.

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested to the tangled path and sometimes dark  shadow religion has cast on the history and culture of the United States. This country was, of course, founded by people wishing the freedom to practice their beliefs in their own way. Of course, the depressing fact that some of them instantly turned around and proceeded to condemn and persecute both the natives that were already here and people who followed other paths such as the Quakers (who were in fact tortured by some early settlers to “encourage them to change) or chose to split off into other schools of thought.

Abortion,  the debate over “God” on our money and the Pledge of Allegiance are just some of the legacy of Sin in America and our reaction and fear of it as a label or brand to be used against the world or each other. The clear path Morone shows to the present day is intriguing and provides real food for thought; obvious when you truly see the religious roots of much of the conflict and debate present in U.S. political thought that has influenced both our foreign and domestic policy since the beginning of the nation.

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A New Look

I’m trying out a new look to mark my return to this blog after a lengthy hiatus. I kinda like it, but I’m open to other opinions. If you think it’s an abomination and should be burned with fire, let me know.

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After The Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

On my last review, I looked at a book with a superhero as the main character, and talked about the sometimes-negative reputation comic books have developed as movie studios have started pumping out superhero films.

This one looks at the “world of heroes” concept from another angle, and one that would make a good film or TV show as well (if it hasn’t already). That’s the viewpoint of the “normal” human among the powered people, and what that means as far as professional and personal relationships.

The main character is Celia West, daughter of Captain Olympus and Spark, the top two heroes in the world. As such, she carries around a name and connection that haven’t made things easy for her in any facet of her life. Not to mention she has been kidnapped so often that its’ almost routine and not really a cause for alarm anymore. This part is admittedly slightly reminiscent of Megamind on first glance, but Vaughn gives it more depth since you’re seeing it from the position of the kidnapped.

After this opening section and introduction of the cast the story really gets rolling. The Destructor, the nastiest supervillain around, is on trial for his various crimes, and Celia has been assigned to the prosecution. The problem is, he knows who she is, and he’s never been one to go down without a fight. Crime is breaking out all over the city as the trial goes on, but Celia isn’t sure he’s the culprit. They have a history together, and combined with her overbearing super-parents, a lot of drama ensues.

Vaughn also introduces some interesting wrinkles to the standard superhero universe that I liked, and the relationships between people seem pretty honest and realistic (for a given value of realistic of people with family issues and heat vision).

In all, I feel that Ms. Vaughn did a fine job with this story. Some of the secondary characters and the wider world might have been sketched out more strongly, but those are relatively minor quibbles, and for the most part everything flows well. I’d be interested in visiting this world again, certainly.

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Prepare To Die by Paul Tobin

There are those who decry the recent upsurge in comic books as the basis for TV shows and movies, seeing them as “kiddie stuff”, too simplistic for a good foundation or simply being uninterested in comics in general. I’m a geek from way back, and I love debating them, but I am not going to do that here-at least not when it comes to two of these arguments. Anyone who gives their kid a (good)comic is only doing the child a favor in my opinion, and everyone is entitled to their opinion.

No, what I take issue with is the suggestion that comics aren’t “deep” enough to anchor a good story. Are some of the concepts pretty cut-and-dried? Yes. Are some of the most well-known characters not the most complex, at first glance? I’d agree to that in a heartbeat. Super-powers are not automatically a handicap or detriment to writing an interesting story. Indeed, it can provide even more fertile soil for amazing stories, or more tools for crafting an intriguing world.

A case in point is Prepare To Die by Paul Tobin, a book I picked up on a whim and found hard to put down. I’ll admit the comic-book-y cover and plot description drew me to it at first glance, but it was the story that drew me in and kept me reading.

The main character is Steve Clarke, the hero known as Reaver. He’s superstrong, supertough, and each punch can literally take off a man’s life. He is hailed as a hero, yet feared for his gifts, which leaves him in an odd place of being met with awe rather than love by most normal humans. As the story begins he’s headed to the hometown he hasn’t seen in years following a threat from his arch-enemy Octagon: he has two weeks to put his effects in order before he dies. It’s a simple idea, on the face of it, and of course ties into the supervillian cliche in the title.

But there’s a lot more to it, of course. During the story we learn Steve’s origin story, how being a hero has changed his life, and what he misses through being more than human. It’s ground that of course has been covered in other places with other characters, but Tobin keeps it fresh by giving Steve a very down-to-earth voice and clearly painting the world and the superfolks in it. He creates several distinct people with personalities and powers without making them seem like obvious exports of other heroes, which is no easy task.

The story itself is fairly straightforward, but no less fun. Some parts are depressing, some very funny, some surprisingly raunchy without being over the top. If I had to sum up the whole story in a single phrase I’d call it “light but strong.” I’d be interested in reading more stories from Mr. Tobin, especially  that Spirit Guide of his, since I’ve been looking for it for years, and it’s been recommended by several leading scientists..

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