Thursday, 17 August 2017

Parenting: never easy [Review: Star Wars Identities]

London is having a good summer for science fiction events. Star Wars Identities is an exhibition of Star Wars costumes, props, models and concept art at the O2 arena, and themed around the parallel life stories of Luke and Anakin and the factors that influenced their personalities - throwing in the odd psychology lesson. Possibly it takes itself a little too seriously in this regard, it would have been perfectly OK just to have put all the genuine movie material on display without this extra dimension of psychology, but it does give the exhibition a bit of structure and it's quite fun too - along the way visitors create their own Star Wars character and backstory with the help of a hi-tech system involving a bracelet sensor used to make life choices at each step.

This is an excellent collection, covering all the films and including everything from the most famous costumes and droid or starship models right through to for some reason the frieze from Senator Palpatine's office, with many exhibits accompanied by concept artwork. Star Wars Identities has been at the O2 Arena since November 2016 and will be there until September 2017.

Well indeed.

Jawa-jawa is better than wara-wara.

Lost in your (Jabba) eyes.

Admire the unbelievably detailed modelling on this Imperial destroyer.

Concept models for the main hero of the Star Wars saga - it's lucky the director chose carefully, otherwise this character might have lacked gravitas and come across as a bit trivial and annoying. In fact the concept work displayed in this exhibition includes some fascinating could-have-beens - including character sketches of an early, female Luke character and a younger, gnome-like Yoda.

You can never have enough spaceships. Mon Calamari cruiser in the foreground.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

[Review: Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets]

When a valuable stolen treasure is sighted in the multi-dimensional Big Market, Valerian and Laureline, two intergalactic special agents are dispatched to recover it - but this turns out to be just the first step in solving a greater mystery connecting the stolen item, the destroyed planet of Mul and the mysterious entity that has taken over part of the multicultural space city Alpha.

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is a Luc Besson film based on the Valerian and Laureline French graphic novels. The heroes are played by Dane DeHaan and Cara Delavigne. As in the comics, Valerian is straight-laced and does it by the book while Laureline is more of an out-of-the-box thinker; traditional gender personality traits are exaggerated for effect. Somehow they appear younger in the film than in the comics - more or less hormonal, bickering teenagers despite their elite skills, military rank and galaxy-saving duties. Theirs is not the greatest on-screen partnership Hollywood has ever seen. When the chemistry does work the flirting and bickering is fun to watch, but it's hit and miss throughout the film. The plot also veers between child-friendly action, adult innuendo and the aftermath of a serious war crime making me wonder just who it is aimed at.

Valerian also takes inspiration from other sci-fi movies - visually there's a lot in common with The Fifth Element including colourful, entertaining aliens, sharp fashions particularly when it comes to uniform, and eye-popping over-the-top environments. The space megacity of Alpha, born from a series of space handshakes starting with the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz link-up, is a mixture of The Fifth Element's New York and Star Wars' Coruscant. There are plenty of other Star Wars parallels but on the other hand, for some reason none of the Star Wars movies feature a shape-changing alien exotic dancer performing any famous scenes from Cabaret. Why not, George?

I bought my ticket for Valerian with high expectations for the visuals but fairly low for everything else. I came out ahead in that the visuals are indeed pretty good, and much of the film (if not quite all) is entertaining.


Saturday, 12 August 2017

Curved Space [Review: Into The Unknown]

"Into The Unknown" is an incredibly ambitious science fiction exhibition in London. In a relatively small gallery space, the Curve Gallery at the Barbican Centre, there is an attempt to tell the entire story of the science fiction genre, from its' origins ito the present day, it's development across different continents and cultures, and across media including books, films, art, architecture, music, games and more, at the same time exploring the many different concepts that appear in sci-fi. The result is fascinating - an Aladdin's Cave of real treasures that can be explored and enjoyed, interspersed with shelves of sci-fi novels and screens showing clips from classic films.

The main gallery is full of surprises - an interactive Mission Control scene from The Martian, a viewing/listening post dedicated to Afrofuturism, and a short sci-fi film with a script written by a predictive text AI. Outside the main gallery the quest continues with exhibits hidden in nooks and crannies elsewhere in the Barbican. A particularly interesting find was Larissa Sansour's experimental film "In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain" with its' theme of archaeological warfare.

"Into The Unknown" can be seen at the Barbican Centre from 3rd June until 1st September 2017. The website is here.

model of airship "The Albatross" from Jules Verne's novel Robur The Conqueror
robots including Sonny from I, Robot and TARS from Interstellar
model of the miniature submarine from Fantastic Voyage
spacesuits from Star Trek V and Moon
 the portable shared-dreaming device from Inception

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Doctorin' The Tardis



The Sci-Fi Gene welcomes Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor, and looks forward to finding out just how this highly talented actress interprets this unique TV role. Whittaker is best known for her role in Broadchurch but also appeared in Joe Cornish's low budget sci-fi Attack The Block, reviewed here, alongside a certain John Boyega who would incidentally be an excellent choice for the 14th Doctor.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Tendril Is The Night [Review: The Void]

When policeman Daniel Carter finds a wounded man in the road and drives him to a nearby hospital, he and the other inhabitants find themselves trapped, surrounded by monks with triangular hoods and at the mercy of whatever is already inside.

The Void is a Canadian horror movie, made on an Indiegogo budget and released in 2016. It's an original story but heavily inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, demonstrating everything that makes a good Lovecraft horror. It's not just about the tentacles, you know:
  • Life from another dimension
  • Science confounded by the supernatural
  • Contact leads to insanity
  • A cult of murderous human worshippers
  • And yes, it's still mostly about the tentacles...

Performances are great, particularly from Aaron Poole and Kathleen Munroe. The film relies heavily on special effects rather than visual effects for the creature scenes, these are impressively gruesome and a lot of fun, channeling John Carpenter's The Thing and other classics. I have nothing against CGI. Nothing! But I have great respect for the art of the special effect and it can lead to a film with quite a different look and feel, something I also found when I watched the indie sci-fi film Hunter Prey, reviewed here.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Pitch Black [Review: Daughter Of Eden]

Daughter Of Eden completes Chris Beckett's trilogy about the tribe of humans descended from two stranded astronauts on the alien world of Eden. Beginning partway through the events of Mother Of Eden, this novel is narrated entirely by Starlight's childhood friend Angie. Whereas Starlight is assertive and physically beautiful, two characteristics that seem to have shaped her entire life, Angie is a batface - she has a severe form of harelip, one of the recurrent defects that result from Eden's tiny gene pool. Even amongst the likeable Jeffsfolk she is treated differently from others and must work harder to win affection or respect. As a result she accepts the offer to travel with a religious woman who claims to hear the voice of Mother Gela. Meanwhile the tension between the Johnfolk and Davidfolk is escalating towards an inevitable confrontation - when suddenly, a mysterious light appears in the sky above the circle of stones that marked the original landing site.

The Eden trilogy is full of powerful ideas about the nature of civilization, humanity and religion. It begins as a version of the Old Testament that grows from a human origin, and deals with themes such as morality and the introduction of killing into the world. Here the people of Eden finally come face to face with the gods of their religion - but what happens if your gods turn out to be human? This is unlikely to end well.

This final book was just as compelling and difficult to put down as Dark Eden and Mother Of Eden, although the story structure is slightly harder to follow - instead of sequential accounts from different characters, the narrative jumps backward and forward between different times in Angie's life. The book ties up loose ends everywhere, filling in the gaps in the colonists' mythology and constantly fascinating the reader with even more details of the indigenous life
of Eden.

In addition to the three novels of the trilogy, the story of the founders Angela and Tommy is told in the short story "Dark Eden" which is published in "The Turing Test", an anthology of Chris Beckett's short stories.

Friday, 19 May 2017

The Dark Is Rising [Review: Mother of Eden]

Several generations after John Redlantern and his followers left the Circle to find new places to live, John's own story has become part of the accumulating mythology of Eden, and the colony has become divided into two main tribes - the adventurous Johnfolk who and the conservative Davidfolk who still wait by the circle of stones for the promised return of the Landing Veekle and the godlike figure of Angela or Mother Gela.

The second of Chris Beckett's trilogy of novels set on Eden focusses on Starlight Brooking, a woman of a smaller tribe descended from John Redlantern's clawfoot ally Jeff. Like Jeff, Starlight and her tribe are pacifists with a tradition of mindful meditation, living on a small island to avoid the skirmishes between Johnfolk and Davidfolk and building boats to trade with the mainland. However on one visit Starlight encounters Greenstone, the son of the leader of the Johnfolk, and travels back with him to become his bride.

The society of Eden has changed in ways foreshadowed by the events of the first novel. Forms of money are appearing. The Johnfolk have discovered metal and moved forward into a bronze age with better weapons and armour, along with other discoveries such as doors and houses, servants and slaves and the division into "big" and "little" people. As the handed-down stories of Earth become cloudier the religion that has formed around Angela has become stronger, and the societies of both Johnfolk and Davidfolk have shifted towards male domination and rule of the strongest. Starlight's new family are powerful but must constantly scheme to remain in control, knowing that they will be killed by their rivals if they fail. Meanwhile women are persecuted for spreading the Secret Story, advice supposedly passed down by Mother Gela to her female children teaching them about equality and the dangers of men who "believe the story is all about them." Eden is darker than ever and this novel introduces themes of power and sexual politics on a personal and societal level, while continuing to dissect the darker side of religion.

I found both Dark Eden and Mother of Eden to be compelling and addictive reads. The writing is very high quality and is capable of shocking the reader at times - punches are not pulled. Starlight's experiences with the Johnfolk are reminiscent of A Song Of Ice And Fire, and the writing style is similar in some ways, particularly the chapters narrated by different characters. while the setting of Eden reminded me of the Human Beings of Stephen Baxter's Flux, another tribe clinging on to their sense of humanity in an environment utterly different from Earth.