Tuesday, 29 September 2015

John Scalzi: Old Man's War

In the immortal words of Roman Strauss, “This is all far from over…”, but I think I’ve read enough of the Old Man’s War universe to say a couple of things. Firstly, Scalzi is a perfectly good writer; you zip through the prose painlessly, and there’s enough good ideas getting chucked around that only a perfectionist would point out that all the characters seem to source their dialogue from the same shop. Scalzi is entertaining as all hell, and would be great fun to have a pint with, but a wry tone which works in real life isn’t a cure-all for every voice in a book.

From what little I’ve looked at in the inter webs, most of the chat about Old Man’s War is about how just what kind of commentary it forms on vintage Robert Heinlein. Some are delighted that Heinlein’s world view is being challenged and updated, and some are spitting blood around the place that the sturdy noble ideals of American yesterday are being defiled, or more bafflingly, are delighted that Heinlein’s charmingly outdated notions of martial valour are being refreshed and promoted for the nihilistic youth of today. And it’s lovely that everyone thinks this matters; it’s sweet that people are prepared to pull apart a bubble-gum fiction and tan its hide into a coat which drapes fetchingly over the flabby limbs of their set opinions, whatever they might be. I’m sure even Scalzi has an opinion on it, but I haven’t gone to look it up because if I can’t figure out what he’s trying to say from what he’s already published, he’s doing something wrong.

But never mind the sociology; let’s just unpick the big begged question in the middle of the whole thing. Ground combat in an era of stellar colonisation is bullshit. Whatever his reasons for doing it, Scalzi is telling a story about a universe in which squabbling alien races invade planets and wipe out the locals so that they can take the planet over lock stock and barrel. They don’t conquer the planet to enslave the locals and profit from the stuff which is there. They don’t want slaves, but lebensraum, and the local produce doesn’t meet their needs (though for some of them, the locals at least represent a tasty snack). 

Well. If all you want to do is wipe the population off the face of a planet and you don’t really care about property damage, there’s no real need to get mud on your boots. If you’ve managed to mobilise the energy to move colonists en masse from one star to another, you’ve got all the energy you need to wipe out any civilisation from orbit without ever getting out of your chair. Stuff and nonsense, you splutter. The targets will be protected by their own space fleets. No doubt you’re right. But again, that’s a space fleet. It will be in space. You’ll have to subdue it if you want to get anything done to the planet, but that’s not going to involve the infantry. And once you’ve done that subduing, you’ve got local space to yourself and there’s the target at the bottom of a nice deep gravity well, defenceless. There is a reason why there isn’t a figure of speech “training fish to hunt other fish in a barrel”. Unless you want to be a dick about it, the cliche is a lot less effort (though as Mythbusters have demonstrated, you need to choose just the right amount of gun if you want to keep the barrel for later). Since you’ve got access to the kind of energy which lets you move colony ships from star to star, you’ve got more than enough energy to move rocks around the system and chuck ‘em at the scurrying savages below. The only reason to use infantry after that is winkling out the stragglers, though even that task is probably best left to collateral damage from the massive biological weapons fiesta you’re going to need to unleash to refashion the planetary surface to best meet the dietary needs of your colonists.

This energy question is the most usual counter to the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox, which can be boiled down to “If there was intelligent life in the universe, surely we’d have seen it by now?” [1]. Nobody, the argument goes, has dropped by because the laws of physics mean that it’s impossible for anyone to move a significant mass out of a planetary system. Conceptually you could move quite a lot of mass very slowly out of a planetary system, but even doing it slowly consumes so much energy and other resources that you’d get more of a return on it by building something locally[2]. Thus, no-one’s coming by any time soon, because what’s the point for them? There’s nothing you could conceivably get from interstellar travel that you couldn’t get for less effort by making it locally.

As far as we know. You can always rely on people to remind you that no-one thought you could get a man to the moon, or safely travel in a train going faster than 20 miles an hour, or have a pocket sized computer which can report on your precise whereabouts to the NSA every thirty seconds while telling them everything you’re saying - and all at your expense. Yes, the state of our scientific knowledge keeps changing, and what seemed impossible to us fifty years ago seems trivial now. But if there is some cosmic hyperdrive out there which makes interstellar conquest an affordable (even for Halliburton style affordability) idea, you’d think that by now someone would have tripped over it and started taking joyrides. Which suggests - until the little green men show up, at least - that our current understanding of the universe’s speed limit is about right, and this here solar system is all we’ve got.

Scalzi knows all this; at some level, anyone educated enough to enjoy his fiction knows it too. We just suspend our awareness of the impossibility of it all so that we can enjoy the actual story. Stories of travel between the stars are fun, all the more so when they echo stories we’ve told for centuries about travel between different lands here on earth. Most SF about space travel is patterned firmly on stories about 19th century sailing ships. It’s dangerous, chancy, cramped and highly technical, and at the end of the voyage there’s people who are strange and yet just like us, and you buy their stuff or hit them on the head and take their stuff - or make them into stuff, and take that stuff home for fun and profit.

For far future fiction, it’s surprisingly backward looking, and that’s probably a big chunk of its appeal. The future is frightening, and it’s reassuring to see that it will be just like the past. The past might have been horrible, but by definition we’ve survived it, so we’ll survive the future if it’s just more of the same. And high adventure’s always a fun read; the bold hero out thinking the faceless others and bounding to an unexpected yet inevitable victory.

There’s a metric buttload of that going on in Old Man’s War, with the humans forever out-thinking and out-punching the aliens despite starting out hopelessly behind them in the space race and just about everything else. It’s jingo as all get out, as is the assumption that in the future all heavy lifting will be done by the United States or people who would fit right in there. Which is where the sociology I was talking about earlier comes from. Is Scalzi just writing SF about an idea which interests him and writing from what he knows rather than making a hash of trying to write a more cosmopolitan viewpoint? (heaven knows that this would be a smart enough move for him given his voice issues). Or is he playing a long game about American exceptionalism by showing us first how it feels from the inside and gradually hollowing that out until it collapses from its own contradictions? You can certainly make a case for that, since each book has chipped away more and more at the simpleminded Heinleinian certainties of the first book in the series. How much of that was the plan from the outset and how much a smart writer course correcting from feedback, I really can’t say. The only thing I can say for sure is that Scalzi knows enough to know that his books aren’t about the stars; one way or another, they’re about the wars we’ve had, or are having, or will have, in our very own backyards.


[1] Related SF problem; time travel has to be impossible, since if it was possible, it would have become available in the future and someone would by now have come back to tell us about it.

[2]Charlie Stross has made a similar point one scale down by contrasting the idea of colonies on Mars with the current reality that we can’t figure out a way to sustain human habitation in the Gobi Desert, which is way more hospitable to human life than Mars, and a much shorter commute. (If you follow the link, you’ll also get a very long, very detailed version of the argument I’m trying to put in a single paragraph above)

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Bill; Clearing up the mystery of what killed Christopher Marlowe

Philip II of Spain, because a knife in the guts was cheaper than fifty quid in coin. That’s in fact not significantly less plausible than some of the other theories about how Elizabethan England’s best tragedian wound up dead in a dive in Deptford at the age of 29, though if you were a cui bono? kind of guy, you’d be looking at how Marlowe’s death cleared the path for William Shakespeare, or whatever gang of squirrels in a raincoat you happen to believe wrote all those plays. There are even more crazy theories about how Shakespeare lived than there are about how Marlowe died, and given that he’s a writer who left six attested signatures, no two of them spelled the same way, eight squirrels in a raincoat is at least as likely as anything which Victorian men of letters threw into the speculation mix.

Sadly, while Bill does clear up the whole who-whacked-Chris question, it’s perversely silent on the question of which member of the aristocracy used Shakespeare as a front (the only Englishman with more stories about how he must really have been someone else posh is Jack the Ripper). The only nod to the whole farrago is the way the Earl of Croydon steals his text to impress the Queen, but that’s the exact opposite of all the other theories, and pretty much everyone in the audience is going to be too busy laughing at the fact that he hates being called “Crawley” to care either way. Take that, Julian Fellowes. There’s no such person as the Earl of Crawley ; Horrible Histories done spoken.

Anyhow, back to Philip II of Spain [1], who is the best thing in the whole movie. I’ve a soft spot for smart people with horrible plans and dumb subordinates, and few come smarter or more dumbly supported than Bill’s version of Philip II. He has a simple plan; take a British hostage, use that to force the Queen to parley, and then murder her to bits at the parley using the very finest assassins Spain has to offer. When you meet Spain’s finest assassins, you realise that Phil has some problems. Either his best men have already been nobbled when the Armada forgot to check the weather forecast, or he’s been losing consistently up to now because Spain’s armed forces are just the worst. A defining moment hits when his leading torturer explains in Titus Andronicus detail how horribly and spectacularly everyone is going to die, and Philip, determined manager of the unsalvageable, nods calmly and says as warmly as he can “Let’s call that Plan J.” Everyone’s had a meeting where that sentence would have come in handy. 

Like anything stretched to movie length for a team that’s used to working in smaller chunks, Bill misses as often as it hits, but the cast are charming, and if one joke doesn’t work, there will be another along in a minute which might be better. And it’s unapologetically aimed at smart people; when Marlowe is setting up the hand-off of Shakespeare’s play to the grasping Croydon, he suggests a public place; “There’s this pub I know. In Deptford. Perfectly safe, I promise."

As a commentary on Shakespeare, in all good conscience I’d have to recommend The Reduced Shakespeare Company , which gives you ALL the Shakespeare and a real risk of serious injury from not being able to catch your breath between guffaws. And while Shakespeare in Love might have won a couple of Oscars, it can’t honestly claim to have the same deep grasp of geopolitics as Bill, and I don’t know where else you’re going to get such a nuanced take on the character and ambitions of Philip II of Spain. It’s also the only movie this year which features a performance of any kind by Damian Lewis, playing a spy only marginally less lucky than Nicholas Brody.

[1] Who is never referred to with less than his full title, except when Damian Lewis dismissively calls him Phil, about thirty seconds before Philip II of Spain turns the tables on him completely and consigns him to a dungeon he never gets out of.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Transporter Refuelled; Soon to be a franchise about his dad

In news which will shock literally nobody, the dumbest thing about making another Transporter movie without Jason Statham is leaving Jason Statham out of it. There’s a nonchalance to Statham beating the snot out of people which makes assault and battery weightless and entertaining, and Ed Skrein doesn’t have that. Tragically, he’s an actor, in a role which needs a star. It’s easy to see where the thinking went wrong. Skrein is an actor who can do quiet, so it must have looked like he could step up to Statham’s particular brand of taciturn. And then you watch him explain Frank Martin’s three rules of transportation. Statham makes the three rules seem like the simple way to stay on his right side; Skrein makes it sound like he’s traumatised to the point where he wrote to the rules to keep the world at a distance.

Luckily, Titus Pullo is there to save the day while stealing all the scenes. Ray Stevenson continues to be the coolest thing in whatever movie he shows up in. No wonder Frank junior seems so demoralised; it can’t have been easy knowing you could never be as cool as your dad. He’s still cooler than the title character of the whole movie despite being taken hostage twice in the course of a short movie.

Transporter Refuelled shares a weird feature with Hitman Agent 47, another underperforming movie about murdering people; the good guys drive Audis and the bad guys drive Mercedes G-wagens. I don’t know if Audi insist that the bad guys use Mercedes, or if G-wagens have just become a cultural shorthand for evil in the same way Saabs became a Hollywood shortcut for suggesting the kind of intellectual the audience could have a beer with, but suddenly the G-wagen is everywhere I look.

Car choices aside, Transporter movies live and die on, well, transport. How much fun is the driving? Not enough fun. I always know the car chases aren’t working when I have time to wince at the potential body count for the innocent bystanders. One of the best stunts is in the trailer, with Frank spinning his Audi to knock the valves off four fire hydrants to create a skid pan for the people coming after him. In the movie, it’s over in seconds, and then we get to watch the poor schmuck French police break their necks as they come off the motorbikes, which seemed to take much longer than the cool bit. That’s just mounting it wrong; a proper car chase - especially in a dumb movie like this - should be a joyous, bloodless thing where people get A-teamed off the road without a real scratch. Or it should be so gut wrenchingly tense that you don’t have time to pick up on the body count. This being a Luc Besson movie … 

Thanks to the decision to hire actors, the movie is ironically at its best when people are just talking to each other, though Luc Besson’s plot-on-a-beermat skills don’t leave them with the kind of dialogue which threatens to dethrone Shakespeare. Nor is this one of the Besson movies which can bolster the occasional arguments that he’s a guy for strong female roles; even though the only people in the movie who know what they’re doing are the female anti-heroes, their lingerie’s got more substance to it than their characterisation. Their interchangeable bimbo-osity is hammered home with the recurring schtick of them confusing the real bad guys by showing up in matching dresses and blonde wigs for all their heists, and for all the effort to show them as manipulating and out-thinking all the various male bad guys and good guys, they wind up being hopelessly reliant on Frank Senior and Frank Junior to make any of their plans actually work.

The game plan seems to be to restart the Transporter franchise without the increasingly expensive Statham, but if they’ve got any sense they’ll start a new one about Frank Senior instead.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

American Ultra; probably not going to be a franchise

Lets see; Jesse Eisenberg plays an action hero and Kristen Stewart plays someone with more than one expression. That’s enough internet stereotypes being bucked to reboot half teh interwebs, even if nothing else happens. Jesse Eisenberg is a terrible action hero, which is kind of the point of casting him, I think, and this is the first time I’ve seen Kristen Stewart playing an adult role, so I don’t know if she’s levelled up for this movie or has always been perfectly fine and was just getting a lot of grief from people who hate Twilight and needed a face to focus on.

Coming hard on the heels of Hitman: Agent 47 American Ultra could only look good. I’d liked the look of the trailer; it looked like a movie where the super-agent was someone you could actually root for. And so it came to pass. Jesse Eisenberg with long stringy hair is a lot less creepy than Jesse with a haircut (he gets a haircut, so you don’t need to take my word for it or check his earlier movies). He’s marginally less believable as a super spy with his hair short, but that’s less about him, and more about the way we’ve been housetrained to think that superspies will have chins and muscles. With the hair long, he’s completely convincing as a dead end stoner, and he sells the idea of being a stoner who has completely forgotten being the kind of person who kill someone with a spoon. Or with pretty much anything else.

Which brings me to the killing. There’s a lot of it, and it’s not quite played for laughs, and it actually works. On the one hand, by the time anyone gets hurt, you’ve got to know the characters a bit and it means something real when bad things happen around them. On the other hand, the staging is crisp and clever. The action is fast and genuinely surprising, and things which ought to hurt have consequences which feel credible. It’s still people being horribly killed for our entertainment, but it’s given both weight and novelty rather than the empty flourishes you get in most of the movies.

For a pretty good worked example, you could put the big fight at the end of the movie up against the big fight at the end of The Equalizer. Both feature highly trained retired superspies killing hordes of armed goons using the contents of a supermarket, but where The Equalizer showed us weary sadism, American Ultra is running on sheer desperation. Mike is there to save his girl and painfully aware that he’s outnumbered and outgunned. It makes all the difference to how the killing plays out.

Also in the movie, and criminally underused, the ever dependable Walton Goggins, who spends most of his screen time playing the kind of interchangeable psycho anyone could play before getting two perfectly judged minutes right at the end, which is really too late. They don’t save the performance so much as make you wonder why the rest of it was ever allowed to happen. Still, since he disappears between one scene and the next, it’s possible that his character makes it out of the whole movie, and he’ll get a chance to show us what he can really do in the sequel which we are totally not going to get.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Hitman: Agent 47; Maybe the other 46 were better

There was a time when Hollywood adapted great works of literature, but now they’re adapting comic books, kid-lit, computer games, boardgames and even text message icons. Hitman: Agent 47 was lucky enough to open in the same season as Pixels (capsule review; the inventor of Pac-Man screaming at the end of the trailer “Someone annihilate this stupid thing!”), but that’s about all it has going for it. Hitman is either an adaptation of a computer game or an attempt to reboot a movie from 2007 which fell flat on its face. Or it’s both, which is pretty much as bad as it sounds.

The 2007 version featured, on the one hand Timothy Olyphant (in between being Seth Bullock and Raylan Givens), and on the other hand Olga Kurylenko (during her “costumes are for frumps” phase). Olyphant had a bad year between that movie and Die Hard 4, and seems to have decided being the deadliest sheriff on TV had worked once, and would do for the next while. I honestly can’t tell you anything else about that movie, other than that there’s a scene where they try to demonstrate how inhuman Agent 47 is by having him completely ignore Olga Kurylenko lying naked on a bed, and just succeed in making everyone involved with the scene look stupid.

Anyhow, even though 2007 should have taught them that if Raylan Goddam Givens couldn’t make it work, nothing could, someone blew the dust off the script and hired Rupert Friend and Hannah Ware to do it all over the hell again. I am convinced that they cast those two actors on that basis that their names made good jokes, and that the performances were pure good luck. Rupert Friend, playing the deadly assassin who turns out to be a friend, does his best with a role which probably only Keanu Reeves could have saved. And Hannah Ware, playing a character who is literally unaware of her destiny, adds at least one dimension to a character who was probably written with less than one. Slumming around the edges; Ciaran Hind, gamely pretending that he cares enough to try to sound like a Ukrainian refugee with lung cancer; Thomas Kretschmann, underplaying the big boss so hard that he disappears into the carpet. Which turns out to be the most dangerous place to be, given that Zachary Quinto spends the back half of the movie chewing any carpet he can find. Also present; a zillion expendable mooks for the name characters to slaughter. Half of them literally are faceless, showing up in armour which always includes gas masks and visors; the other half are only more marginally distinguishable than the identical light grey suits they all wear. Collectively they perform like Imperial Stormtroopers suffering from jet lag.

Other than that, it’s the Matrix crossed with the Terminator; there’s a saviour for humanity who’s being chased by hordes of interchangeable agents and has just one special agent trying to save her. The most novel thing about the whole movie is that at one point they crash a helicopter into an office block and it doesn’t explode. Normal Hollywood standards are resumed a few minutes later when Ciaran Hind blows up an even bigger helicopter with an improvised bomb the size of an asthma inhaler. Consistency is for wimps.

This is the kind of thing where you know it will be stupid going in, and you’re just hoping that it will be imaginative and bold enough to distract you from how stupid it’s being. Instead I got something which allowed me all the time I needed to ponder the rampant insanity of a whole pack of hitmen who always wear black suits, white shirts and red ties and have shaved heads with a bar code on the back. And who all look identical. They’re like a security agency’s wet dream; an enemy which you can programme all your computers to spot on sight.

I mentioned Keanu a moment ago; John Wick was the perfect example of what Hitman  doesn’t get right. Implacable, emotionless killer wiping out hordes of mooks in what you can almost call a violent ballet. The big shootouts in John Wick just work; the shootouts in Hitman feel like they’re demonstrating the efficiency of the rag doll physics in the game engine; oh look, another guy just got shot and fell over a railing into another railing and then into a jet engine, flopping realistically the whole way. Look at the frame rate! Look at the way the blood gushes out when that guy falls into the completely inexplicable meat grinder in the middle of the jet engine factory!

The worst part of the whole experience was the guys about eight seats down from me on the same row, who greeted every splat-tastic death with the delighted chuckle of a toddler who’d been given another scoop of ice-cream. If we actually had the kind of surveillance technology which movies take for granted, it would be a good idea to point it at the audience of movies like Hitman and mark all the gigglers for special handling.