Friday, March 26, 2010

Hollywood Badass of the Day -- Michael Biehn

This guy has been a total BAMF in every film I've ever seen him in. Even when he's a bad guy. So here's to this veteran of James Cameron sci-fi, this quick-drawing mean-spirited sonofabitch, that one guy who was in that Command & Conquer game that one time... Michael Biehn. Here's three of my favorite roles he's played.

Kyle Reese, The Terminator

So here's a guy who, after spending most of his life scrabbling through the nuclear wasteland of what used to be Los Angeles, decides "Hey, I'm gonna test pilot this brand-spanking-new time travel equipment we jacked from SkyNet." Nevermind that he had no way of knowing whether it worked or if he wasn't going to be splattered into a million pieces all over the time-space continuum. He did it anyway. Then, using "stone knives and bearskins" (Spock's assessment of 20th century technology) he fends off a T800, escapes from the LAPD, and procreates the savior of humanity with Sarah Connor all in one day (er, that last one without the stone knives and bearskins, I think).

Also, near the end of the film, he goes melee with the Terminator using only a steel pipe, saying, "Come on, motherfucker." Whatever else you say about him, the guy's got balls.

Key quote: "Come with me if you want to live."

Corporal Dwayne Hicks, Aliens

Yeah, he might mostly be the same character as Kyle Reese, but he's still a badass, and he survives the constant shit-hitting-the-fan that is the movie Aliens. Only two other humans and half an android managed that. Hicks makes it through because he keeps his cool. When Hudson's all like "Game over man! Game over!" Hicks is like "...Are you finished?" And then when they find out Burke was going to murder them on the way home, he's like "All right, we waste him. No offense."

Key quote: [pulls out his pump-action shotgun] "I like to keep this handy. For close encounters."

Johnny Ringo, Tombstone

Only Biehn and Val Kilmer can master this mustache and not look totally ridiculous. Hell, Biehn even manages to look genuinely mean in it. He has this tense, brooding presence throughout the film that always provides the bite to Curly Bill's bark. He's a stone-cold killer who jokes about death and displays zero remorse for any of his rather shocking actions.

Key quote: As Wyatt and Virgil Earp drive their brother's casket to the cemetery, Ringo mutters, "You smell that, Bill? Smells like someone died."

He's also starred as Michael McNeil in Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun alongside James Earl Jones, and apparently it's rumored that he might show up in 2011's film version of Kane and Lynch. Food for thought, people. In the meantime, go watch one of these movies.

Deathmatch -- Aliens vs. The Terminator

Deathmatch #2 here at Sure as Shiretalk has come around, and this time we're featuring a pair of sci-fi favorites in contrast to last time's fantasy characters. This one came up between my roommates and I after I purchased the first three Alien films recently. So, here it is: Aliens vs. The Terminator. Let's meet the combatants.

Disclaimer: I have not read, nor do I intend to read, the comic titled "Aliens versus Predator versus The Terminator."

Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, The Terminator

"That Terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead."

Thus spake Sgt. Kyle Reese to Sarah Connor concerning her pursuer in 1984's The Terminator. The T800 is a highly intelligent sentient computer system housed inside a humanoid titanium alloy combat chassis. Virtually invulnerable to projectile weapons, this model Terminator basically needs to be decapitated before you can be sure it's done for -- or you at least need to make sure you smash that computer chip in its head.

Also, the Arnold version wears shades, rides a Harley, and wields a shotgun one-handed.

The Xenomorph, Alien

"You still don't understand what you're dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility... A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality."

Ash was certainly right about that in 1979's Alien. An organism that can survive intense heat, cold, and the vacuum of space without showing any signs of discomfort is certainly more structurally perfect than most. Nevermind that it has molecular acid (<-- not real, btw) for blood, which can apparently eat through basically any substance in moments (but takes considerably longer with Michael Biehn's skin... what a badass). They're also great predators, meaning they're stealthy, strong, and quite a bit smarter than your average bear.

Well, let's assume a couple of things: the Terminator is armed, and there are multiple Aliens. I hope we can all agree that, should the Terminator gain a vantage point from which he is more or less inaccessible, he wins by pumping them all full of hot lead. The Aliens are apparently vulnerable to normal gunfire, and a few good shots generally takes them out, acid blood a-splashing every-goddamn-where. Up close and personal might be a different story, though.

Given that the Terminator is made of titanium, I'm going to go ahead and say that skull-bashing thing from the Aliens' jaws-inside-the-jaws is just going to break some teeth. They also probably won't be able to do a lot of damage with their claws or that spiky tail, again because Terminators are pretty much solid as a rock.

However, in order to kill any of them, the Terminator is probably going to have to start breaking some skin, and that could lead to some serious battle damage. Like, Arnold-at-the-end-of-T2 battle damage. If he gets mobbed, the Aliens might be able to use their combined strength to just yank him apart, which would of course render him immobile and therefore defeated. Whatever the case, it would be an epic battle worthy of multiple Aliens versus The Terminator films regardless of how increasingly bad they might get.

So, Terminator wins, but with ever-decreasing odds the more Alien blood he spills. Sorry, Aliens, but you're just not quite as perfect against inorganic opponents. [insert xenomorph sadface here]

Btw, I love this picture, and I want to see the movie right now:

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Top Five Most Reprehensible Corporations in Science Fiction

From an early age, we science fiction nerds have been taught that all corporate entities, regardless of size or field of interest, are inherently evil and seek only to make the lives of the little people more and more miserable. Here are the five that stick in my mind as the most reprehensible of all.

This post was inspired by a page out of this April's Game Informer magazine. There are plenty of evil corporations in gaming, of course, but some of the worst of the worst come from films as well. I'm also a bit peeved about GI's picks -- a few of them, such as Aperture Science (Portal) and Union Aerospace Corporation (Doom 3), seem to conflate the corporation itself with a single person (or in Portal's case, a single AI). In light of my disagreements, I've used the word "reprehensible" in my title so I can highlight some of those discrepancies between the corporate and the individual entities.

Weyland-Yutani Corporation, Alien

This corporation, generally referred to as "The Company" (indicating its sheer size and realm of influence), apparently finds it morally acceptable to impregnate its employees with chestbursters in order to acquire the Alien for their biological weapons development. So, disregarding the very real possibility that a single xenomorph could wipe out the human race, let's reverse-engineer these nasty buggers just so we can kill some stuff.

Who did they want to kill, anyway? I can't recall a single instance in any of the Alien films where they mention being at war with anybody.

VersaLife and Page Industries, Deus Ex

What's worse than manufacturing an extremely aggressive mechanical virus with a 100% mortality rate? Profiting from the cure. Under the direction of Bob Page and Walton Simons, VersaLife could have destroyed human life on Earth -- all in the name of shameless power-grabbing and greed.

Typical behavior from billionaire Majestic-12 puppeteers, I suppose.

Union Aerospace Corporation, Doom 3

Fooling around with teleportation devices will always get your shit fucked up. That's a fact. I mean, even on Star Trek the transporters break down once in a while, as Dr. Leonard McCoy is so quick to point out. And sometimes teleportation technology will even open a portal directly to Hell and spill all the evil in existence over into your high-tech R&D facility on Mars. Who knew?

Well, Dr. Betruger, that's who. UAC is partially responsible because there had to have been somebody who could guess at what he was up to and possibly have prevented it. Just think of all the ventilation shafts we could have stayed the hell out of if not for that wacko...

Fontaine Futuristics, BioShock and BioShock 2

So this classy bunch has no qualms with abducting little girls and subjecting them to ghastly physical and psychological conditioning to further the goals of a sociopathic conman and, after he was dead, a deranged political extremist. Oh, and they worsened the Rapture Civil War by increasing the supply of the very substance that drove everybody insane. So in essence, they are the persons most directly responsible for all of the things that want to kill you throughout the entirety of BioShock and BioShock 2.

On the upside, though, they did produce the Big Daddies, meaning you get to Drill Dash countless hordes of poor splicers into the walls. Oh the joy, after being so slow and cumbersome for the first couple hours of the game.

Multi-National United, District 9

Same story here as Weyland-Yutani, really -- experiment on living organisms to create bigger and badder weapons. Except the prawns are far less hostile than the xenomorphs, as they're more or less a metaphor for oppressed racial and ethnic groups of South Africa.

They've also got a paramilitary organization backing them, which is never a good thing when it comes to amoral corporate entities.

Science Fiction -- A Discussion of Defintion

It has frequently been brought to my attention in the past few months or so that our society at large is disturbingly unclear on what constitutes the genre of science fiction. For serious, people, this has got to stop.

There is no single way of saying it that highlights all of the aspects of the genre, but one thing I am certainly tired of is people assuming something is science fiction just because it involves spaceships or laser guns. A look over Wikipedia's article will tell you sci-fi is "realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method." That's a pretty good starting place regarding setting, but it's also extremely vague, and it doesn't really touch on what kind of themes we should be looking for, either.

I would complicate the above quote by adding the following: "Science fiction seeks to discuss the portent for humanity of these possible future events, including but not limited to the consideration of ethics, morality, longevity/survivability of the species/our native planet, and the implications thereof for modern humanity. The genre frequently chooses to remain morally ambivalent about said considerations; on the other hand, it also frequently uses the depiction of possible futures to warn or admonish the audiences of today."

In order to demonstrate the definition that I've laid out thus far, I think a comparison of two well-known and well-loved films is called for. One is a near-perfect example of science fiction at its best, and the other (while a great film in its own right) is often mistakenly judged as part of this genre.

In my experience, The Terminator (1984) is regarded either very well or very poorly (in the same categories respectively, you generally find people who have seen it and people who haven't). Judgments of quality notwithstanding (I happen to love this movie), it is a prime example of many different plot devices and themes often employed by the genre -- namely, time travel, artificial intelligence, nuclear holocaust, and the human ambitions that bring these situations about. The film elicits sympathy for Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese as they suffer the results of actions entirely beyond their control.

Two aspects of this movie in particular strike me as exhibiting the qualities of science fiction: it spends considerable time and effort on Sarah and Kyle's psychological reactions to their situation, and it wisely restrains itself from depicting the Terminator as "evil"; rather, it is a persistent, unfeeling antagonist that forces the intense humanity of Sarah and Kyle's interactions with each other into closer focus. As a result, the film is first and foremost a tense, frantic flight from our own realized fears, asking the audience to recognize its various story elements (nuclear weapons, AI, etc.) as valid concerns for the near future.

In short: The Terminator is thoughtful and realistic (within imaginative limits), a gripping account of how humanity's own ingenuity can have unforeseen consequences. This fits pretty much perfectly into the definition listed above.

In comparison, the movie frequently named the best science fiction film of all time is not, in fact, science fiction. 1977's Star Wars may feature such things as space travel, alien species and swords made of pure energy, but this is (in most cases) where its similarity to sci-fi ends. Whereas a primary goal of films like The Terminator is to consider how humanity deals with the unexpected or the unknown, Star Wars simply assumes the existence of said elements and then fails to comment on them in any way. By "fails" I only mean to say that the film simply does not address the societal or cultural effects of the sci-fi story elements it employs.

Star Wars places far more emphasis specifically on morality and conflict themselves rather than the issues that inform and cause them. This may seem like a relatively negligible difference, and yes, some titles blur the line in really cool ways, but consider this: What would Star Wars be without the intense division between good and evil? It is those two forces that shape the film's plot and create the galaxy-spanning civil war that culminates in Return of the Jedi. I would argue that one of the reasons we enjoy Han Solo so much is that we're able to see and identify with his progression from selfish mercenary to swashbuckling hero -- but how much would we like him if he had ended up on the other side? (Think about how you feel when Lando Calrissian cooperates with Vader.)

The myriad alien races, the dogfights in space, and the advanced technology of all kinds add an exoticism to the film that enhances its appeal and originality, but in its thematic focus, Star Wars is far more similar to The Lord of the Rings than other sci-fi titles involving space travel, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Battlestar Galactica. Star Wars is a morality play that emphasizes the dichotomy between good and evil as the defining conflict in the very fabric of the universe. Space fantasy, if you will. Science fiction (at its most interesting, in my opinion) tries to avoid such sweeping statements in favor of complexity of character and ambiguity regarding difficult and often undesirable situations.

None of this is to say, however, that certain titles do not significantly blur the lines between sci-fi and many other genres -- some of my favorites being Firefly, Serenity, and Back to the Future. On the contrary, it becomes easier to identify these blendings of genre when we have a clear notion of what we're talking about when we say "sci-fi" or "fantasy."

So, next time you hear someone say that Star Wars is the greatest sci-fi movie of all time, tell them they're wrong.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Midtown Global Market FTW

This is only barely related to sci-fi and fantasy, but I just wanted to gush a little bit about the magnificence of "open-air" markets like the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis or the English Market in Cork, Ireland (the former isn't technically open-air, but you know what I mean). Great food, interesting crafts, and generally quite friendly people make for a great experience, and sometimes you come across great deals on things you wouldn't even expect to be there -- like used copies of Alien and Aliens for a total of six dollars. I also picked up Contact, and I'm planning on going back for Alien 3. Three bucks each!!! Buy secondhand, people. It's worth it.

Sci-fi badass of the day brought to you by: Sigourney Weaver.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Exciting Pseudo-News from the World's Slowest Game Developer

Apparently there's a possibility of either some add-on content or a sequel on the way for Portal, says Game Informer. I actually just played through the original again yesterday, and I can't wait to see what Valve does with what is easily its most innovative concept. And, given that Portal is in fact part of the Half-Life universe, I'll be thrilled if they decide to give Gordon Freeman a shot with Aperture Science's signature toy.

The Ethics of Digital Rights Management vs. Software Piracy

So gamers everywhere are a bit peeved (oh who am I kidding, they've already collected the torches and pitchforks) over the new version of digital rights management (DRM) software shipping out on the PC port of Assassin's Creed II, the console versions of which have received rave reviews for slick, atmospheric gameplay and more finely-tuned mechanics carried over from the original. UbiSoft, on the other hand, is getting the proverbial vegetable justice for the unprecedentedly stringent anti-piracy software required to even install the game, much less play it.

A brief rundown on DRM software: anti-piracy measures originated as little more than a coding trick to prevent users from copying the game CDs or DVDs; since these are typically required to be in the computer's CD/DVD-ROM drive during play, this method prevents your average consumer from buying a single copy and distributing it for free to all his/her friends. More recently, publishers have started requiring users to register the software online, which "unlocks" the game on your computer (Steam and Games for Windows Live are a couple of examples). Combined, these methods effectively prevent most of the population from actually initiating any software piracy, but that's of little consequence when a small percentage of those people can "crack" the game and make it available for download to anyone with an internet connection.

Assassin's Creed II is taking anti-piracy to a whole new level. Besides the by-now obligatory internet activation, PC gamers will be required to be connected to the Internet at all times during play. If your connection goes out for longer than a few seconds, all progress since the last checkpoint in the game will be lost.

What I want to address in this post is the extremely awkward and unpleasant position in which most PC gamers now find themselves, should they want to play recent and upcoming games. We are either forced to acquiesce to such blatantly ridiculous anti-piracy measures, or start illegally downloading our games.

Before I get into that, though, I'll explain why it's ridiculous. Time was when I could walk into a store, purchase an item, take it home, and use it. End of happy capitalist consumer story. But not anymore. Let's say I want to go into GameStop or wherever and buy a copy of BioShock 2 or Batman: Arkham Asylum. When I take it home, the game is unplayable until I've asked permission from Windows Live to use my legally purchased product. Apparently exchange of currency is no longer enough to get you certain retail items in this society built on rampant capitalism. Much as I despise that economic system most of the time, I must say that not having complete control over something I've paid a decent chunk of cash for (currently about $50 and rising for a new PC game) really, really pisses me off.

Further, it cannot be said under any circumstances that video game developers and publishers are doing anything other than raking in the money hand over fist. Grand Theft Auto IV, the most expensive video game ever made, cost $100 million. It generated $500 million in the first week after it was released. It has apparently shipped 13 million copies worldwide, which, if we do a little simple math at 50 bucks a pop, brings the total up to $650 million.

Returning to ACII, which has only been released on Xbox 360 and the PS3 so far, we find it has sold roughly 8 million copies as of February 10 this year. A little more math (this one costing $60), and we get a total of $480 million. UbiSoft is apparently a little cagey about their production costs, but if we go with high-end numbers from this article, ACII probably did not cost UbiSoft more than $34 million. Let's see... that's a profit of 446 million dollars, which is a higher net profit than 17 of the 20 most profitable films of all time (only The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Titanic, and Avatar have had a better turnaround). Assassin's Creed II has only been out since November, and the PC version still hasn't been released. Here's my general feeling toward UbiSoft on the subject of software piracy:

I'm so sorry, UbiSoft, I didn't realize you had fallen on such hard times. Please, let me shell out 60 dollars, which is between 15-20% of my average paycheck, in order to play (but not physically own) a game that has made more money for you in four months on only two of its three systems than Jurassic Park did for Universal in its entire run through movie theaters. Piracy is pretty much only possible on PC versions of video games, and as we know, they're certainly not hurting for console sales. What's really at stake then, if not their company's survival? I think this whole thing is about property. The fat cats of video gaming are pissed off that some guy (who likely knows more about computers than they ever will) can sit in his room at home and alter the software so that it can be used without paying their increasingly exorbitant prices.

Okay, okay, enough sarcasm and simple arithmetic. I believe, as many do, that video games are just as much an art form as books, music, films, and television programs (the extremely variable quality of these is not currently under discussion), and as such, their creators do indeed deserve reasonable compensation for their efforts. All of these media (except PC games) are available to me in some fashion for free or for a small fee before I actually have to pay to own them -- which is a good thing, because it's extremely disappointing to spend one's hard-earned money on some form of media only to find out that it sucks. (Case in point: since I didn't get to the theater in time, I am the unfortunate owner of The Matrix Revolutions.) Instead of spending stupid amounts of money developing more and better DRM software, which is guaranteed to alienate honest PC users and only slightly more likely to confound pirates, why not develop a system in which PC gamers can test-play a game before we have to buy it? Or perhaps figure out a way that we could play a game only once before having to pay the full amount, like seeing a movie at the theater vs. buying the DVD? I'd be fine with UbiSoft's new technique if, say, it was significantly cheaper and good for only a single playthrough -- provided I could later purchase the game, permanently, in its complete form (no bullshit Internet connections required).

Demos do not count toward this end, and I'll tell you why. If I was given a demo of the original Assassin's Creed, containing only the first couple of levels, I would probably run out and buy the game right then and there; I mean, in the first hour of play, the game appears to be truly amazing. What a demo wouldn't tell you, though, is that the game is extremely repetitive through its entirety and downright annoying by the last hour or so. I know this from recent experience, and as a consequence I will not be buying the game. On the other hand, I played through Arkham Asylum once and purchased it immediately afterward. Like I said, good work deserves good compensation. Another good example: I recently played BioShock for the first time, too, and I plan on buying it myself at some point. In any case, my point is that I should not have to pay money for something that I won't like, and at this point in time, there is no way for a PC gamer to make that determination aside from a) borrowing a game, or b) downloading it illegally. That needs to change.

Granted, these methods still probably wouldn't stop piracy, but then, it seems unlikely that anything ever will. What it would do is retain PC gamers' trust, and, ideally, encourage developers to produce games that are so good, gamers will want to spend their money.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Faster than a speeding bullet, and almost as unique -- Enemies & Allies by Kevin J. Anderson

This will be the first Sure as Shiretalk book review. Yes, I do indeed still enjoy books from time to time, even though no one's forcing me to read them and requiring me to buy a specific edition from the local extortionist... erm, excuse me, campus bookstore. Anyway, here goes.

I'm a sucker for all things Batman. You guys know that. So when my uncle got this book from the fam for his birthday last year, I was intrigued (I borrowed it from him because I'm poor and cheap and I generally shy away from buying things I'm not absolutely sure I'll like). I also really enjoy pretty much anything about the UFO scares of the 40s and 50s (hence why I liked Kingdom of the Crystal Skull more than others seemed to), and I find the Man of Steel tolerable, and sometimes even interesting, when he's juxtaposed with the Dark Knight. And besides, the only other Batman novel I'd read was No Man's Land, which was suspiciously, annoyingly lacking in Batman (as were the original comic versions). I was also psyched for another novel by Kevin J. Anderson, whom I had read and liked long before for his work in the "Star Wars Expanded Universe" or whatever they call the non-canon (and therefore good) Star Wars lore these days. I was hoping the late 50s setting would add some new interest to the meeting of two superheroes who tend to run into each other in the comics almost as often as Clark Kent runs into kryptonite on Smallville.

Well, despite the fact that Anderson sends both Batman and Superman to exotic locales such as Siberia and Area 51, the heart of all UFO conspiracy theories, there was almost nothing new or interesting about any of their interactions. Even in the key moment, when they meet each other for the "first time" (how many times can that happen in one universe, anyway?), Anderson can't seem to think of any scenario other than what has probably been written a hundred different times by as many authors since the late 1930s: Superman is all hands-on-his-hips, spouting his "halt evildoer" nonsense, and Batman is gruffly having none of it and disappearing into thin air. Oh, and the dialogue is flat and fails to say anything worthwhile about any of the super important differences between the two characters.

Sigh... So you just biffed the most anticipated moment in your epically-staged but disappointingly-executed novel about the two most popular superheroes in history. Any reason I should read on instead of picking up The Dark Knight Returns again to wash the awful taste from my mouth? I guess I couldn't really think of one at the time, but I kept going anyway (I'm apparently just loony enough to stick it out to the bitter end, but sane enough to be irritated with myself afterward). Lex Luthor is the supervillain for this go-around, and he's without doubt the most enjoyable figure in the novel. Anderson does get the character right here; Superman's nemesis is quite sufficiently despicable, and his final line in the book almost makes it worth the three or four hours (tops) it'll take you to read it.

Anyway, the whole thing comes off as more of an outline in need of serious expansion and revision than a complete, polished novel. I would've welcomed another few hundred pages if it meant the story would be long enough (and good enough) that I'd actually have the time to get invested in it. And, though this is certainly personal preference speaking, more Batman is never a bad thing. But as it stands, the entire novel zips by about as fast as the Man of Steel rushing to save Lois Lane falling off whichever tall structure she decided to climb today, and you're not going to find any situations or sentiments here that aren't better said somewhere else in the vast DC canon. Take a look at this .gif about these two bruisers of comic books instead of reading Enemies & Allies -- it'll save you some time, and it's definitely more enjoyable.

2 stars of 5.