Tag Archives: sci-fi

Book Review: Emperor of Thorns (Mark Lawrence) (4 *’s)

Emperor of Thorns is the third book of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series. You can find my reviews of the preceding books here: Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns. I’ve been looking forward to this book, and I enjoyed it considerably. It continues the story of Jorg Ancrath, now a king, 20 (I think) years of age. He’s still ruthless and basically corrupt, but he has grown to care for his pregnant wife and soon-to-be born son. And now he has his eyes set on the throne of the Emperor which has been vacant for over one hundred years.

The story begins with Jorg Ancrath and a small contingent of his loyal forces being escorted by the Gilden Guards to the formal meeting of the kings to select an emperor called the Congression. Much of the present day tale follows him and his journey on the road. He encounters undead creatures of various sorts: common undead soldiers, and more powerful lichkin. Throughout there are flashbacks to Jorg’s adventures five years ago when he traveled to radiation poisoned lands in search of ancient technology, the land of the Moors to meet a powerful caliph and his mathmagician, and to Vyene, the seat of the empire. He has his trials and tribulations along the way, influenced by both modern magic and ancient technologies (that’s kind of a funny twist I just noticed: modern magic and ancient technology). The whole leads to a climax in the Empire’s throne room where he confronts the horror of horrors: the Dead King, leader of the unholy armies of the dead.

Strengths: the writing was excellent, the story gripping and sufficiently convoluted to keep me engaged, and the plot was well done. Weaknesses: I’ve said in my prior two reviews that I was not fond of the character of Jorg as a main character since he’s basically evil. He’s grown on me to a certain extent, and I do enjoy his adventures now. He’s grown a little: he cares somewhat for his wife and even more for his son. That doesn’t justify anything he’s done, and makes the juxtaposition between himself and savior of the realms an odd one, to say the least. Finally, I was raised Catholic and the prevalent corruption throughout his Church did not appeal to me. He can paint his Church any way he likes, of course, and the modern Catholic Church has known some well-deserved criticism for its moral failings at times, but not one of the priests in these novels really measured up to any of the priests I have known in my life.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book and I’ll give Emperor of Thorns four stars out of five.

Movie Review: Interstellar (4 *’s) (2014)

Interstellar is the latest film directed by Christopher Nolan, the man who brought us the most recent Batman trilogy. It is a long film (nearly three hours) that tackles the realities of interstellar travel, actually intergalactic travel to be more precise. It stars a number of big names: Matthew McConaughey (as Cooper), Anne Hathaway (as Brand), and Michael Cain (as the elder Brand). Cooper’s daughter, Murph, is played by three actresses: Mackenzie Foy (10 years old), Jessica Chastain (adult), and Ellen Burstyn (old woman).

The story begins on Earth in the not-too-distant future. A terrible blight has struck wiping out entire crops at a time. The only thing that grows is corn, and its future is uncertain as well. The situation is desperate. The elder Professor Brand works at a secret NASA station on a secret project. As a result of an apparent paranormal event (which is explained later in the film and which is probably the film’s biggest weakness), Cooper is given the coordinates where the NASA station is located. He sets off with his daughter, Murph, in tow and finds the station; whereupon he is captured by a robot. After a brief interrogation, Professor Brand actually offers Cooper a spot on the upcoming mission that NASA is preparing for. The goal is to find a suitable planet where humanity can start over. Cooper and four other astronauts (including Professor Brand’s daughter) are to be sent to the outer reaches of the solar system to where a wormhole has opened leading to another galaxy. The explanation for the wormhole is somewhat mysterious: “they” are responsible—a mysterious alien race that has taken an interest in the Earth’s plight. So, Cooper and the others pass through the wormhole in search of a habitable planet. Will they find one? I’m not tellin’!

Strengths: the acting was superb, the plot was … stellar (just kidding)—the plot was really good, the special effects were great and always appropriate, and the music score was exceptional as well, kind of a mix of haunting melancholy at times and adventurous derring-do. The fact that they tackled relativistic time distortions effectively was a big plus. Weaknesses: I think the film’s biggest weak point was the explanation of the paranormal event I referred to earlier. It did succeed in tying everything back together again, but it struck me as a little cheesy. Other than that, I don’t think there were many big weaknesses. Although it was long; this film is definitely a major time commitment.

Overall, I enjoyed Interstellar quite a bit. I’ll give it four stars out of five.

Old Movie Review: Transformers 4: Age of Extinction (4 *’s) (2014)

Transformers 4: Age of Extinction is the latest installment in the Transformers series. It stars a number of big names: Mark Wahlberg (as the gifted mechanic Cade Yeager), Stanley Tucci (as the corrupt, in-over-his-head business tycoon, Joshua Joyce), and Kelsey Grammer (as CIA agent Harold Attinger). I was never a big Transformers fan as a kid—I think they came out about a year too late for me: I thought they were kind of pedorky. Nowadays, I kind of rate them as neutral. They generally don’t get me excited, but neither do I run fleeing from them in disdain. I went to see this movie to hang out with a friend who is a much bigger fan of the Transformers. And I have to say, I really liked this movie.

There are several story threads going at the same time throughout the movie; each thread is related to the others and they weave in and out to tell a complete tale. On the one hand, there is Cade Yeager, a brilliant mechanic who enjoys turning junk into technology. One day he brings an old beat-up truck home to work on. Surprise! It turns out to be Optimus Prime. Unbeknowst to Yeager, there is a corrupt CIA agent named Harold Attinger who, in conjunction with an alien Transformer bounty hunter, is seeking out Autobots in general, and Optimus Prime in particular. Attinger has formed a special unit called Cemetery Wind to do the dirty work. Finally, there is business tycoon Joshua Joyce who has made a deal with Attinger to acquire transformium (the material Transformers are made from), study it, and develop new technologies from it. Little does he know that he’s being manipulated by Megatron. It is up to Cade Yeager, Optimus Prime, and the remaining handful of Autobots to once again save the world. Pitted against them is Megatron, who has been upgraded to a more advanced robot, and he has an army of new decepticons, also upgraded, to aid him.

Strengths: the special effects were great. The acting was good, although with Mark Wahlberg, Kelsey Grammer, and Stanley Tucci it’s hard to go wrong. The dialogue was good and the plot was engaging. I was engrossed in the movie the whole time. And, of course, the Dinobots were really cool. Weaknesses: I can’t really think of any weaknesses. There was action, excitement, and everything flowed from one moment to the next. Everything held together and made a cohesive whole. If you like Transformers, I’m sure you’ll like this movie.

I’ll give Transformers 4: Age of Extinction a total of four stars out of five.

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (4 *’s) (2014)

Guardians of the Galaxyis the latest film adapted from Marvel Comics. I thought this movie was going to be horrible going by the trailer which did not impress me at all. Originally, I had no intention of seeing it. But I heard a few good things about it, so I figured I would give it a gander. It tells the story of a motley group of galactic heroes who, through happenstance and conscious choice, find themselves working together to save the Galaxy. It stars Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (aka Starlord), Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax, Vin Diesel as the voice of Groot, and Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket (the genetically modified raccoon).

 

The main character is, of course, Peter Quill, aka Starlord, a half-human, half-alien (although he looks completely human) who was abducted from Earth shortly after his mother’s death when he was about 10 years old. The story begins as Peter Quill is recovering an orb for a galactic outlaw. What is in the orb, he doesn’t know. But soon, he’s caught up in a chaotic struggle as the orb is stolen, re-stolen, and re-stolen again. Everyone wants the orb, but he doesn’t know why. The struggle brings him into contact with Gamora, Drax, Groot, and Rocket. They are a motley collection of miscreants who eventually decide to work together—but only after they have beaten each other senseless in their own efforts to get the orb. They wind up in prison together and must learn to trust each other in order to escape.

 

Strengths: the acting was good, the plot coherent, the special effects well done and well placed, and the characters were memorable. My favorite character turned out to be Rocket the Raccoon. Going by the trailer, I thought he’d just be stupid; but I was pleasantly surprised. That said, I liked all the characters and enjoyed the action and intrigue in the film. Weaknesses: this was a PG-13 movie—I’m not sure it had to be, but it was. There was some mild profanity which was fine by the PG-13 rating, but which really didn’t fit the overall tone of the movie. It’s like they put the profanity in as an afterthought to earn that type of rating, maybe. I don’t know. But it just didn’t seem to fit the characters, because for the bulk of the movie, the dialogue was clean. Anyway, it was still a good movie.

 

I’ll give Guardians of the Galaxyfour stars out of five.

Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow: (3 ½ stars) (2014)

The Edge of Tomorrow is the latest sci-fi action film starring Tom Cruise. He plays the role of Officer Cage, a military newsman who gets on the bad side of a certain general, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), when he refuses a direct order and then tries to blackmail the general. He quickly finds himself arrested and deposited on the front lines of a war with the rank of private. There he encounters the other star of the film, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt). Together they must join forces to defeat a ruthless army of aliens who are slowly, methodically conquering the earth. By the beginning of the film, the aliens have already conquered most of Europe.

 

Completely out of his depth, Officer Cage finds himself in the midst of a horrible military assault on a beach. There, after a brief encounter with an even stranger alien, he dies, only to wake up back in time at the beginning of his bad day. He finds his day repeating. The same events occur as before. He is not sure how to deal with this. He finds that he still has an active will and that he can change things to a limited extent; but the outcome of the battle seems to be inevitable: the annihilation of the human forces. However, he has joined forces with Rita Vrataski, a female soldier who went through a similar experience in a prior battle. Together, perhaps, they will be able to unlock the secrets of Cage’s repeating experiences and devise a means of defeating this nearly invincible enemy.

 

Strengths: if you can accept the basic premise of the movie (time travel), this is a remarkably fun movie: lots of action, explosions, and bizarre aliens. The acting was good; the special effects were excellent, and the storyline held together well. This film effectively avoided the “I’ve seen it before so it’s boring” pitfall that can sometimes infiltrate films where time travel leading to repetitive experiences is involved. Different segments of the same day were repeated, but they were spiced up a bit with different actions and events, and then entirely new experiences were shown based on completely unique choices that Cage made. Weaknesses: I can’t really specify a particular weakness, but the overall film, while good, was not excellent. It’s nothing I can nail down in words, I just don’t think it’s worth a full five stars.

 

I’ll give The Edge of Tomorrow three and a half, or maybe even four, stars out of five.

 

Movie Review: Robocop (2014) (3 1/2 *’s)

Robocop is a remake of the 1987 film of the same name. I don’t remember enough of the original movie to compare the two. All I remember was that it was pretty gory. This one wasn’t as gory, I think; it went the way of action-packed instead. Joel Kinnamon plays the lead character, Alex Murphy, a cop mangled by a car bomb and placed in a mechanical suit to survive. The film also stars Samuel Jackson, Gary Oldman, and Michael Keaton. Michael Keaton plays the bad guy, the evil exec of Omnicorp, Raymond Sellars. Gary Oldman plays Sellars’ brilliant scientist/henchman, Dr. Dennett Norton, who is constantly at odds with the Robocop program on moral grounds. And Samuel Jackson plays a newsman, Pat Novak, host of the program “The Novak Element” (I heard that the Novak Element was supposed to poke fun at The O’Reilly Factor of Fox News … if so, it did a poor job, but it was fine for the purposes of the movie).

 

Anyway, Alex Murphy is mauled by a car bomb and placed in the Robocop suit. Well, it’s really not a suit; it’s everything but his lungs, heart, and head, just about. Murphy has some difficulty adapting (imagine that!), but soon he settles into his new role as the Robocop; a marriage between man and machine in the pursuit of justice. Also of interest is the growing tension between Dr. Dennett Norton and Raymond Sellars. Sellars keeps making demands of Norton that push him just a little farther down the road to corruption, and each time Norton bends, until finally, he will bend no more. It makes for an interesting development. The Robocop character doesn’t really develop any more beyond the point of accepting his new role in life, but he does change (he kind of goes through a loop). Due to electrochemical manipulation, he becomes more robotic, but that, too, in time changes, although we are left to guess at the mechanism behind that (it is suggested that it is the soul or something not understood behind the change). Regardless, the movie roughly follows the same trajectory as the original with a similar climax. It is different because it explores in more depth the way that Alex Murphy deals with his new life as Robocop.

 

Strengths: the acting was fine, the plot was decent, and the action was good. Also, the special effects were superb, but that’s Hollywood these days. Weaknesses: I can’t think of any major weaknesses, although I kind of get tired of the big bad business exec motif that Hollywood keeps putting out. At least in the original, if I recall correctly, the bad guy was #2 and the #1 guy was not a villain. Anyway, that’s a tiny complaint, hardly worthy of mention.

 

In the end, I’ll give Robocop three and a half out of five stars.

Old Movie Review: The Colony (2013) (3 *’s)

The Colony is a film directed by Jeff Renfroe and starring Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton. I don’t remember it ever hitting the theatres; it may have just been a made for Sy fy (I don’t believe they spell it like that!) or something like that. The lead role is played by Kevin Zegers, an actor I know nothing about. Anyway, Kevin plays a young man named Sam living in a colony (I think it’s Colony 7 or Colony 5), one of only several such places that humans can still live. The setting is a post-apocalyptic Earth, one brought on by a new Ice Age that came about after humanity developed the technology to manipulate weather and things got out of control.

 

The story is fairly linear. From the beginning it is clear that the colony is in a rough spot and the measures they have taken to ensure their survival are nearly draconian by our soft cushy standards. For them, disease is a terrible threat. Anyone who comes down with something must be quarantined; if they don’t get better in the allotted time they are given a test. If it comes back positive, they are given a choice: be shot or walk. Walking means leaving the colony and trying to make it on your own in the arctic wasteland around it. Basically, walking is a death sentence as well. Laurence Fishburne plays Briggs the leader of the colony. Bill Paxton plays Mason, the colony’s increasingly draconian bad guy.

 

There are other colonies in the area. The story really takes off when Sam’s colony loses contact with one of the other neighboring ones. Sam, Briggs, and one other colony member set off to investigate. What has silenced their neighbor? Is it simply mechanical error? Or something more sinister.

 

Strengths: I think the acting was fine. The storyline held together well enough. I don’t think there were any parts were you wanted to berate the characters for doing something really stupid. The premise was interesting … a little bit of a twist on the standard post-apocalyptic setting. Weaknesses: Bill Paxton plays the standard jerk/bad guy who everybody wants to see die. He did fine in the role, it’s just that that character-type has been done to death. Also, although the storyline held together, there really weren’t any twists to make it really intriguing. It was okay, but unexceptional. Finally, the movie did not end well. The conclusion wasn’t a conclusion. It left you with a sense of hope, but still unsure whether or not the colony survives. I wanted a stronger sense of closure.

 

Anyway, I’ll give The Colony three stars out of five.

Movie Review: Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the sequel to the 2012 movie, The Hunger Games. Both movies are based on the books of the same name written by Suzanne Collins. I’ve never read the books, but I’ve seen both movies. The movies star Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen the defiant and victorious young woman from district twelve of the dystopian society of Panem. In the prior movie, Katniss and Peeta Mellark are thrown into the Hunger Games, a competition between a group of young men and women selected from the various districts. The competition is brutal to the point of death: only one individual is allowed to survive each completion. The last movie ended with Katniss and Peeta, under the guise of a romantic attachment to each other, becoming the first pair of individuals to survive the Games.

 

The second movie begins where the other one left off. Katniss and Peeta must make the rounds as Victors. They visit each of the districts together to spout a few “profound” words about duty and honor and what-have-you. Stuff to placate the masses. But things are changing. The two young “lovers” were only spared because they threatened to commit suicide in defiance of the tyranny of the Games. That defiance is being picked up in the districts outside the Capitol. Now, the scent of revolution is in the air. And the rebels have chosen their symbol: Katniss, whether she likes it or not. Seeing the up-spiral in unrest and the growing popularity of Katniss, President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland), the leader of the Capitol, decides that all the Victors are a threat. So, he “changes the rules.” Now, on the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games, a new competition (he claims it is the third) is called for: the Quarter Quell. This is a competition in which only Victors play. The rules are the same as before: only one can survive. Is Katniss strong enough and courageous enough to survive the Quarter Quell? Find out in Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

 

Strengths: the acting in the movie was fine, the storyline was good, there were no serious logical flaws that I could see. And the special effects were excellent and well-used. They didn’t go overboard on the special effects, and that is a resounding plus. Weaknesses: I thought the character of Katniss was a little bit whiny. Maybe it was just me. But she seemed a little bit hopeless about the whole living under a tyrannical dictator the whole time. And then there was the unrest, and she was trying to quell it. Basically, I kind of thought that her whiny-ness would interfere with her whole becoming the symbol of the revolution bit. Maybe it was done better in the book, but on the screen something was lacking.

 

Anyway, I’ll still give Hunger Games: Catching Fire a solid four stars out of five.

Book Review: The Rithmatist (Brandon Sanderson)

The Rithmatist is a nearly four hundred page young adult novel by Brandon Sanderson. I guess it’s kind of a steampunk/fantasy hybrid (although I’m not really sure—I don’t read steampunk at all). Anyway, it seems to be a story of a parallel Earth where the technology has evolved to the point where everything is based on gears. Further, there is a discipline of magic known as Rithmatics. Rithmatics is an art that is based on drawing circles, lines, and characters on the ground to summon up mystical barriers, and small two-dimensional beings called chalklings, and using such to combat an enemy. It’s quite intricate and rather interesting.

 

Anyway, the story is focused on Joel, a young student at the school of learning known as Armedia. Armedia is one of the eight schools in the United Isles (a parallel of the United States and North America) where Rithmatics is taught and studied. Joel is a precocious young man totally enthralled by and enchanted with Rithmatics. He knows more about Rithmatics than any other non-Rithmatist, and probably even some Rithmatist students. Unfortunately, he is not a Rithmatist: only a select few are chosen, and Joel missed his chance.

 

Shortly into the story, Joel is delivering a message to one of the Rithmatic professors (Professor Fitch). As fate would have it, a new professor, Professor Nalizar, interrupts the class to challenge Fitch for his position. Unprepared and somewhat flustered, Fitch loses the confrontation. He surrenders his place in class and is reduced in rank. Shortly thereafter, Rithmatic students begin disappearing from off-campus. Is Nalizar involved? The timing is curious, and Joel is suspicious, if for no reason than that he does not like Nalizar at all. Anyway, the principal assigns Fitch to investigate, and Joel to assist. Hopefully, together they can unravel the mystery and not fall prey to the mysterious Scribbler, the perpetrator of the heinous crimes.

 

Strengths: The writing is excellent, the plotline enjoyable, and the magic system involved and interesting. The characters are well-developed and likeable. And the resolution was well-crafted and not easily foreseen. Weaknesses: to be honest, I can’t think of any serious weaknesses. With Sanderson there’s usually some kind of humor that just seems forced, but not in this book. For some reason, I wasn’t 100% engaged in the book, but I was engaged. Whatever it was lacking, I can’t quite put my finger on.

 

Anyway, I’ll give The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson four and a half stars out of five.

Movie Review: Thor: The Darkworld (2013) (4 Stars)

Chris Hemsworth reprises his role as Thor in Thor: The Dark World. Although I never reviewed it for this blog (the blog didn’t exist at the time), I saw the original Thor movie when it came out; it was okay, maybe three and half stars or so. I definitely think this second movie is an improvement over the first. It stars Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman (as Jane Foster), Anthony Hopkins (as Odin), and Tom Hiddleston (as Loki). Loki has become one of my favorite characters of the franchise. Tom Hiddleston does a remarkable job at bringing the character to life.

 

Anyway, the story begins with a sort-of prologue that sets the stage. Millenia ago, the Dark Elves existed in a reality before this universe. Then, this universe came into being (how, the movie doesn’t tell us). The Dark Elves, being creatures of darkness, hated the light and this universe it had produced, so their king, Malekith, decided to destroy it with the power of the aether, a dark force of boundless energy. Fortunately, for us, the Asgardians, led by Odin’s father, stopped it. They stole the aether from the Dark Elves and, after destroying the Dark Elf army, buried it where it would hopefully never be found. Fast forward to the modern day and planet Earth. Jane Foster, in the midst of studying a scientific anomaly, is pulled into the place where the Aether resides. Of course, it winds up being absorbed by her body. Now that it has been released, somewhere in far off space, Malekith is revived and he renews his plot to destroy the universe with the remnants of his Dark Elf army. All he needs for ultimate victory is the Aether, which is contained in Jane Foster’s body. Once again, Thor must rise to the challenge and confront unspeakable evil to save us all from doom.

 

Strengths: I’ve already mentioned that I love Loki. Tom Hiddleston does a wonderful job. Chris Hemsworth did a great job, too. As did Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman. The story was engaging and interesting. The special effects were superb. There were a number of well-timed humorous lines. Weaknesses: this is a minor one, but I feel inclined to point  it out: they kind of took a shot at America in one so-called “clever line” which I didn’t appreciate, although I’m sure some people will. The ending was a bit confusing. I’m still not sure how Thor defeated Malekith, or rather, why things he did worked the way they did. Finally, and this is the most important weakness, I really don’t like mixing the science fiction with the Norse mythology. I mean, really, a sci-fi adventure where Dark Elves are the bad guys? I hear elf, dark or otherwise, and I think Tolkien or D&D or whatever. Also, the science in the science fiction was bad and confusing. I still don’t know what the Nine Realms are. Are they nine planets? Nine solar systems? Nine Galaxies? You get a view of them at the end and they look like planets … so in the entire universe, there are only nine planets that are habitable? Add to that all the gravimetric and other scientific-sounding gobblydegook, and it gets an F in basic science. But it’s based on a Marvel Comic, so I suppose you really can’t hold that last bit against them much.

 

Anyway, I’ll give Thor: The Darkworld four stars out of five.