Tuesday, June 11, 2013

2013 F/SF Movies on the To-See List

Those who know me know I rarely go to the theater for movies anymore.  There's hardly any point.  Unless the film is an epic, sweeping visual masterpiece, it's not worth the arm and leg for tickets, artery-clogging butter popcorn, gallon o' soft drink, and junior mints.  Especially when I can watch it in the comfort of our family room on a large screen, eat whatever I wish, and maybe even enjoy a couple of Pacific Northwest microbrews with it.  And I don't sit there all movie wishing I could crack a shoe over the heads of the teenie boppers constantly texting and talking in front of me.

Besides, spending all that cash on a gamble that Hollywood will actually invest more in plot and well-rounded characters instead of cool visual effects and explosions isn't exactly a safe bet.  And if there's one thing that turns me off quicker than anything else, it's a poor story disguised with glitz and plot Spackle, but let's not get me going off on that tangent!

This year, however, there are a few fine films that appear worth the price of hassle and admission, just to see them on a larger-than-life screen.  And they're movies I really don't want to have to wait a few months more to see.  Sure, you can bet on the danger of glossing over important story elements with special effects, but sometimes it's worth risking it to get the full effect.  There are three in particular I'm looking forward to, three that I have read the books to already, and in some cases several times.  So let's discuss.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Part One had its strengths and weaknesses.  Gravity certainly wasn't the cruel mistress in the movie that she is in real life, but there were better parts throughout too.  I didn't especially like the fact they stretched a rather short novel into three epic movies, and the stretching shows at times, but it's still interesting and visually stimulating enough to be enjoyable.  On the whole, it seems to fit well with the LOTR trilogy, especially in terms of feel and visuals, which it was supposed to do, and Jackson seems to be doing fair justice to the story.

They are adding new characters to the film that weren't in the book.  I'm really not sure how I feel about this.  On one hand, there's so much more added to the story already, that extra characters, especially ones that hopefully round the story out a little better, are probably a good thing.  But they're not staying as true to Tolkien's work as I'd have liked to see.

They teased Smaug during the first one, but never really showed more than a fleeting glimpse.  In the second round, Bilbo meets him, up close and personal, so he should get plenty of screen time.  I'm certainly looking forward to that.  I mean, the whole story centers around this magnificent dragon.  Isn't that what people are going to the movie to see?

It opens in the United States on December 13, 2013.  You can visit the official Hobbit website for more hobbitsy stuff from Middle Earth.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Sure, this is a young adult series, and we're all grown-ups here, but remember:

“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
― Madeleine L'Engle
This is a great series, intellectually.  It makes you think, makes you mull over situations you ordinarily wouldn't give a second thought to.  The series may be criticized for not having an entirely original concept, but no story is ever completely original.  With most stories, one can find another, earlier story that mirrors it almost exactly.  This one is original enough, and provides a very fresh twist on one of the more interesting dystopian fiction tropes.

The first movie held up well in comparison to the books.  My daughter also read the books before we went to see the first movie, so it was a neat experience to have someone to talk to about the differences, and what we liked and didn't like about each.  That usually doesn't happen for me.  We had a great literary discussion that bored the hell out of the rest of the family.

It will be interesting to see where this series goes from here.  The stakes are higher, and the danger greater.  Without giving away too many spoilers, the books left something to be desired with some readers because of the way they turned out.  I thought it ended quite well, though, and I'll be watching closely to see if they pull any punches with the movies, as they so often tend to do.  Hollywood evidently thinks moviegoers are a weaker, more dim-witted breed than book readers.  Often they're the same people, so what gives?

It opens in the United States on November 22, 2013.  You can visit the official Hunger Games website for more Capitol directives regarding Panem.

Ender's Game

The book, no matter what one might think of the author, was fantastic.  The immediate sequel, Ender's Shadow, was even better, in my opinion, but only because we got to see the behind-the-scenes action that tied the whole story together better, and from a better narrator.

The movie, we're told, will be much different than the book.  It really has to be, which is one of the reasons it's taken so long to be translated from the written page to the silver screen.  And I'm okay with that.  The movie version of a book doesn't have to be the identical story for it to be a good story.  They're two different storytelling mediums, and one often can do things the other can't.  Sometimes there is merit in producing two very different versions of the same story to take advantage of the strengths of each storytelling medium.

One of the things I already like about the movie was the casting, which is a key difference between the movie and the book.  The actors are older - in their early teens, as opposed to around six - but appear to be well suited to the characters they are portraying.  That's an important aspect of a movie based on a book.  While the reader has to conjure an image of the characters in the mind's eye, a movie can give a thousand-word description in a single frame.  The problem lies when the characters in our mind's eye look nothing like their counterparts on the screen, because the producers failed to come up with the right actors.

It opens in the United States on November 1, 2013.  You can visit the official Ender's Game website for more tech from the International Fleet.

There are a number of other movies I'm looking forward to this summer.  These are but three of the ones I'm most anxious to see.  Others include Elysium, Oblivion, and World War Z.  What speculative fiction movies are you most looking forward to seeing this year?

Monday, June 3, 2013

I, For One, Welcome our New Robot Overlords

Remember when robots were these stiff, unresponsive automatons, that performed rudimentary, programmed tasks, and the thought of any higher intelligence response was the stuff of science fiction movies?  Well, that's all changed, and more quickly than we might have imagined.  Several breakthroughs and advances in robotics have made that science fiction movie pipe dream look a whole lot more like reality. Here are five really cool videos that illustrate how far we've come recently.

Robots can be controlled by human thoughts.  Through means of a brain-computer interface, a human is able to instruct the robot to complete tasks just by thinking.  We've recently seen robotic prostheses designed which reacted to human thought, via the surrounding muscle.  Now we're doing it from a computer interface wired directly to the brain.

Robots anticipate human actions and act accordingly.  They are no longer programmed to simply act, but are now learning to be reactionary, to "think" for themselves, based on a dynamic environment.  The ability to adjust to changing surroundings is key to real-world adaptations for robotics.

Current robotic technology is becoming better and faster than before.  Where just a few years ago, getting legged robot to walk was a major breakthrough, we're now setting speed records.  The faster a robot can travel, and the more agile it becomes, the better able it can function.  This guy ain't called "Cheetah" for nothing.

Robots are getting stronger and more agile.  Remember these guys, the "Big Dog," or "Alpha Dog" robots? The nightmare fuel I shared a while ago? Yea, I just thought you might like to revisit them, 'cause they're bad-ass beasts, and they're only getting better.  And there are more of them, too.  A whole army of them!

Robots are being taught intrinsic motivation, or artificial curiosity.  Similar to how children learn, robots are being trained via behavior reinforcement learning.  They learn by processing their environment into different types of behavioral modules, as seen through video cameras, and translating that into movement data.  This creates a usable representation of its environment, along with learned behavior associated with goal-oriented functions.

This may seem like the Terminator's Skynet to more than a few of you.  Hard to imagine otherwise staring down those big Alpha Dog robots coming at you at almost thirty miles an hour, especially when you imagine they've also melded reactive behavior and a usable translation of their environment to their skill sets.  To paraphrase that classic Simpson's line: I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.  And so should you.

Luckily, scientists are all working to create peaceful robots, of course, which is why we see advances like prosthetic limbs, and cute robot boxing toys.  The days where everyone is able to drum up the cash for a giant warrior dog robot are well in the future.  But one can always dream, right?