Star Wars: Rogue One has a peculiar relationship with death

Grand Moff Tarkin - Peter Cushing

Star Wars: Rogue One created a digital Peter Cushing to reprise his role at Grand Moff Tarkin.

Warning: Lots of spoilers.

The movie Star Wars: Rogue One is a fun way to pass a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon, especially if you’re a kid without much exposure to the Star Wars franchise. For anyone who has a bit more experience with the series, or who thinks much about storytelling, the movie can leave you scratching your head.

For one thing, viewers who know the characters and the plots starting with the original Star Wars (now called A New Hope) release in 1977 will spend much of their time puzzling out the way in which the plot line of Rogue One fits with the series arc. The screenplay by a multitude of writers does a good job of meshing with the rest of the Star Wars’ canon.

You can also spend a lot of cycles looking for the two dozen or so nuggets from other Star Wars films. In the process, you might lose a line of pithy dialog or miss a well-photographed shot. These “Where’s Waldo?” moments can be fun, or they can take you out of the total immersion that makes good storytelling an almost out-of-body experience. Continue reading

Aliens, linguistics, and disruptive storytelling make Arrival must-see sci-fi

Arrival movie poster

Arrival uses disruptive storytelling techniques effectively.

We rarely think about our relationship with time. Life is just one damned thing after another. One word follows another. Cause and effect follow the arrow of history. What if you had a different relationship with time, one in which you perceived past, present and future happening at once, so that you know the future in the same instant you know the present and the past?

Science fiction writer Ted Chiang explores the idea in a 1999 short story, “Story of Your Life.” In 2016, Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve adapted the story for the motion picture Arrival, which arrived in theaters November 11. Both stories are told through the eyes of Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist brought in by the military to translate the language of aliens visiting the earth. The film builds on the short story, adding some Hollywood pizzazz and a different ending. Fortunately, the additions don’t obscure the main point; our daily experience of time is only one of many possibilities.

In both narratives, a new kind of language “rewires” Banks’ brain, and the writer and director use non-linear storytelling as a way to demonstrate Banks’ transformative encounter. Non-linear stories don’t follow most people’s experience of events in time, that is, one thing following another as you walk a path through life. Sometimes called “disruptive narratives,” these stories jump around in time, as in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. If handled poorly, non-linear stories leave readers confused and disoriented. Handled well, they seem more like paintings, best encountered as a whole. Continue reading

Poll: Will you see Arrival or Rogue One over Christmas weekend?

Rogue One and Arrival image

Left: Felicity Jones stars at Jyn Erso in Star Wars: Rogue One. Right: Amy Adams plays Louise Banks in Arrival.

Do you like to take family and friends to a movie over Christmas? Science fiction fans have two great choices: Star Wars: Rogue One and Arrival. Rogue One, the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise, stars Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. Arrival, a first contact story, stars Amy Adams as Louise Banks.

You can’t always get what you want, even on Christmas, and what if you had to choose? So I’ve got a poll for you. Nope, you can’t see both movies, you have to pick one.

For all you non-sci-fi fans, I’ve got an “other” choice. Be sure to say what you plan to see. Have fun!

Ted Chiang’s sci-fi genius arrives with laser-like precision

cover art for Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Possible spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen Arrival.

The release of the movie Arrival last month prompted my interest in Seattle science fiction writer Ted Chiang. He has published only 15 short stories, novelettes, and novellas in print, including “Story of Your Life,” the inspiration for Arrival. He’s won Nebulas, Hugos, and host of other awards, far out of proportion to his published output, judging by most other writers I know. As a writer who’s only published one short story (not counting self-publishing), I had to read more by this man.

Penguin Random House has collected eight of his stories in Stories of Your Life And Others, including “Story,” most of them the award winners. It’s a remarkable collection that may become part of the core canon of science fiction and speculative fiction in general. None of the the stories hits a weak note, though I have favorites among them.

If there’s a single word that describes them all, it’s “precise,” demonstrating Chiang’s penchant for picking only the right words and phrases, and crafting every sentence as if his writing life depended on it. Chiang’s style may reflect his training in computer science; every line of “code,” if you will, is elegant and purposeful, and the result is often mesmerizing. Continue reading

You can remember John Glenn by watching this 2005 British TV series

Still from Space Race

Vitalie Ursu plays cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the 2005 BBC docu-drama Space Race.

The death of Sen. John Glenn on December 8 brought to my mind the extraordinary achievement of his three orbits around the earth on February 20, 1962. He was the last survivor of the Mercury astronauts, the seven American test pilots who risked their lives to prove that humans could travel and work in space.

They were more than explorers, in a sense. They were soldiers in a propaganda war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which one-upped each other for more than a decade to prove the superiority of their respective political systems. It was started in 1957 by Russia with the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and climaxed with the US moon landing in 1969. The “space race,” as people called it, was the most visible, non-military manifestation of the Cold War between America and the USSR. Continue reading

Review: Doctor Strange: It’s All Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch actor

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange dominates the eponymous film.

I’ll be honest. Movies based on comic books don’t interest me. The only reason I went to see Doctor Strange over the weekend was Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve become a major fan after his performances in the latest BBC version of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and his movies, particularly The Imitation Game, in which he played mathematician Alan Turing, and as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate. Doctor Strange was another chance to see him in action.

My wife, a teacher who works with autistic children, pointed out rightly that Cumberbatch has a knack for playing individuals with personalities on either end of the bell curve. Armchair diagnosticians might argue he plays characters who are “on the spectrum,” as “average” people say, sometimes with a mocking laugh. Holmes, Turing, and Assange are all high-functioning, extremely intelligent people with trouble connecting emotionally to others. They aren’t mentally ill, just so different they make others around them uncomfortable. Continue reading

Two thoughts about the future U.S. Supreme Court

We come in peace to replace Antonin Scalia with Gort.

We come in peace to replace Antonin Scalia with Gort.

meme

Humans get justice at the Supreme Court. How about some justice for me?

The passing of U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia last weekend turned national politics on its head. Not only will Americans elect a new president, but the Senate will debate the future direction of the highest court in the land. The situation makes me wake up in the middle of the night with meme ideas. What fun! Here’s what comes to mind.

Why parents should take their kids to see the new Star Wars

jar-jar_binks_card

Parents should pass Star Wars traditions to their children.

Star War: The Force Awakens has taken in $1 billion in ticket sales, and I’m betting a large share comes from parents taking their kids to see the blockbuster. It’s more than mom and/or dad looking for ways to occupy the young’ns on a long holiday weekend. What was once a triennial or quadrennial ritual reserved for sci-fi and fantasy geeks has become a sharing-time moment, not too far from parents and kids watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown together every Halloween.

My two daughters and I took in the latest Star Wars epic on Christmas night, after spending the afternoon with their grandmother and waiving goodbye to their mother, who was off to California on family business. The offspring are both in college, but all their friends had obligations on Christmas night, so I jumped at the chance to share my passion for the Star Wars story. For as long as they were able to mimic Dad saying “Luke, I am your father,” I’d tell the story of waiting for two hours in 1977 to buy a ticket outside a Seattle theatre for the original Star Wars movie, then wait another two hours to see the picture, and finding myself completely captivated by it. I bought the books, listened over and over to the recording (on vinyl) of the John Williams score, and waited like a bridegroom for the second, third, and so on installments of the franchise. Continue reading

Why The Martian’s success probably won’t spawn a sequel

The Martian still

Hollywood needs to make more science and technology movies like The Martian. Photo courtesy 20th-Century Fox.

My two college-age daughters and I walked out of a showing of The Martian last weekend in a mild daze resembling postprandial satisfaction. You want that feeling of well-being to go on, and so the first question I asked them and an accompanying friend was, “Should it get a sequel?”

The answer: “NO!!!!!”

I agree. In fact, most hard science fiction movies don’t get a sequel. No science-driven stranded-in-space stories I can think of—Marooned, Apollo 13, Gravity, Interstellar—got a sequel. The only hard sci-fi film that did was, ironically, the granddaddy of them all, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Does anyone remember 2010: The Year We Make Contact? Continue reading

Mad Max: Fury Road sputters, despite its feminist cred

Mad Max Fury Road image

Mad Max: Fury Road has feminist overtones, but it’s not enough to give the story depth. Image courtesy Warner Bros.

My college-age daughter Emily and I saw Mad Max: Fury Road over the weekend and we left the theater wondering what all the fuss is about. Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the George Miller action thriller a 98 percent rating. Competitor Metacritic rates it 89 percent. I know three people who probably wouldn’t recommend it: myself, my daughter, and a retired firefighter friend who knows what really happens when cars blow up, flinging bodies in all directions.

I wanted to see MM:FR mostly because I liked the second Mad Max picture, subtitled The Road Warrior, but not the original Mad Max, which I found tedious. I also saw Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but I wasn’t all that impressed. Thirty years after Thunderdome, I hoped Miller had brought maturity to the franchise with MM:FR, but I ended up wondering if it was worth the price of the tickets. Continue reading