The Cyberstalking (1999)

(On TV, September 1999) One learns a lot from a movie while doing the dishes while it plays on TV. First; made-for-TV films are never of superior quality. Two; beautiful actresses can make you look at the screen even if what they’re doing isn’t really interesting. Three; it’s a very bad sign if you can’t remember the end of the film only two days later. Four; There is still no reason to disprove the axiom that “any movie title containing cyber is sign of a rotten script”. Five; When making a film about a pop signer, don’t repeat the same song four times, especially if it bears an uncanny resemblance to a Republica song. Six; washing dishes while watching a completely empty film still gives you the feeling you’ve accomplished something.

Crash (1996)

(On TV, September 1999) It’s hard to see where a soft-porn film about car crashes can go wrong for any young male, but David Cronenberg’s film never amounts to anything beyond a collection of brief sex scenes. And even then, most of those are cut so quickly as to be insignificant. If it’s supposed to be an exploration of sex versus machine, it doesn’t do a whole lot of exploring. The lack of development is such that once the superfluous is cut out, there can’t be much more than fifteen minutes of plot left. (At least Deborah Kara Unger is very hot, so much that she makes plain-looking Holly Hunter look ridiculous in comparison.) Say what you want about porn films, but most of them contain both more plot and more excitement -and, possibly, more realism- than Crash.

Cliffhanger (1993)

(On TV, September 1999) This may not be the most convincing thriller out there, but it works despite the numerous logical flaws, editing glitches and coherence problems it contains. The script scream “contrivance!” each time a new oh-so-dangerous situation emerges, regardless of previous continuity. The tough-but-sensitive protagonist role seems custom-built for Sylvester Stallone, who turns in a convincing performance. Director Renny Harlin obviously knows how to build a thriller, and Cliffhanger includes several money shots that elevate this action film from fair to good.

Breakdown (1997)

(On TV, September 1999) In an industry often incompetent enough to be unable to turn out decent product, it’s a refreshing change to see a perfectly good thriller so well-done. No earth-shattering villains, no save-the-world histrionics; just an ordinary guy looking for his wife, and battling plain blue-collar baddies. The pacing is superb, the direction is surprisingly competent and Kurt Russell turns in a fine performance. Though not without significant plot flaws (relying too much on coincidences in the first half-hour), Breakdown remains a superior, unassuming little thriller done strictly according to the rules of the genre. And that’s more than good enough.

Blue Streak (1999)

(In theaters, September 1999) This works pretty well, provided you do consider it as what it is; an updated Beverly Hills Cop taking place in the same sunny fantasy Los Angeles world where police headquarters are architectural models and everyone fires heavy artillery at the slightest provocation. Martin Lawrence is surprisingly sympathetic as the protagonist. The script has numerous plot holes, but the comedy is funny and the action scenes are engaging. A perfect example of “a good time at the movies”, Blue Streak is -in the end- just enough fun.

The Martians, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 1999, 336 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-80117-1

All fans of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, please stand up and be counted. Now allow me to explain how the very number of you standing up constitutes an irresistible moneymaking opportunity.

By Science-Fiction standards, the Mars trilogy was an enormously successful work, both popularly, critically and financially. All the books of the series won either the Hugo or the Nebula award and the paperback editions of the book are all well into further printings. All books were bestsellers and have already attained something akin to classical status.

Which, of course, makes it irresistible for both publisher and author to milk out an little “extra”. The Martians is the first such extra, a 336-pages book that brings together several short pieces related to the Mars trilogy. You’ll find here a few short stories, essays, vignettes, poems…

The book starts with “Michel in Antarctica”, a pre-history of the Mars trilogy that ultimately veers in alternate history. This particular parallel world is further explored in “Michel in Provence”, though -unfortunately- no more.

Other pieces bring back the characters of the trilogy, often illuminating earlier actions, or simply presenting maybe outtakes from the original text. So we get “Maya and Desmond”, “Coyote Makes Trouble”, “Jackie on Zo”, “Keeping the Flame”, “Coyote Remembers” and “Sax Moments”.

The Martians reprints two of Robinson’s pre-Red Mars Mars stories, “Exploring Fossil Canyon” and the lengthy novella “Green Mars”. Both of these stories are part of an alternate mini-cycle further explored here with “Arthur Sternbach Brings the Curveball to Mars” (a slight, but fun story about Martian baseball), “What Matters” and “A Martian Romance”.

There are also a few unconnected short stories here and there, including “Saving Noctis Dam”, “Sexual Dismorphism” and “Enough is as Good as a Feast”. We get twice as many unconnected vignettes, some evocative and some decidedly less so.

There are also a few pieces commenting on the trilogy, whether it’s “The Constitution of Mars” (annotated), “The Sountrack”, selected poems (including one called “A Report on the First Recorded Case of Areophagy”) and a final poignant piece titled “Purple Mars”, where Robinson may describe his last day of work on the Mars trilogy.

The result is both more and less of what we expected. On one hand, it is a worthwhile companion to the Mars trilogy, presenting more of what made the trilogy so popular. On the other hand, it doesn’t present what would have been interesting to see in a companion volume: Non-fiction essays on the conception, the writing, the revision of the series. Original plans. Maps and drafts. More substantial side-stories. As such, it almost approaches the “let’s dump cut scenes in the marketplace” approach.

But really, The Martians couldn’t be anything but a disappointment for fans of the trilogy, knowing that this is pretty much the last of what Robinson has to say about the place. As such, it’s a fitting -if uneven- tribute. Non-fans already suspect that they shouldn’t begin here, but fans should be advised that The Martians is a decent sideshow to the main event.

Black Dog (1998)

(On DVD, September 1999) This manages to build three-quarters of quite a good B-grade action film before completely losing it in the finale. Patrick Swayze does a good job as the trucker action hero—looking disturbingly like Kurt Russell. (Meatloaf’s character, however, ends on a cringe-inducing over-the-top mode.) The truck stunts are really enjoyable: make no mistake, this is a truck movie, probably the best since Convoy and/or Smokey And The Bandit. (Feeling nostalgic, yet?) The plot is serviceable, but takes a turn toward both the gee-that’s-boring and the where-did-THAT-come-from in the schizophrenic finale. Worth a look for action/truck junkies, but you might be better off rewinding the cassette at the one-hour mark and making up the ending in your own head.

Billy Madison (1995)

(On TV, September 1999) Here’s a splendid example of a comedy that loses “it” completely and repeatedly. “It” being wit, development, arc, punch lines and cohesiveness. Not the ingredients needed to build a successful comedy, you’ll say… and yet compare the silly throw-stuff-at-the-audience-until- something-sticks “philosophy” of Billy Madison with the meticulously constructed and developed comedy of, say, Shakespeare In Love and see if one isn’t funnier -and more satisfying- than the other. Even Adam Sandler’s latter Happy Gilmore is more focused and thus more enjoyable. Still, there’s no denying that there are a few good laughs out of Billy Madison, though they won’t make much of an impression… and won’t quite stop to make you wonder how on earth would someone like Madison would end up with someone like Brigitte Wilson.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

(On VHS, September 1999) Often-impressive war drama that unfortunately bogs down in useless vignettes and an empty last thirty minutes. Some of the combat scenes are truly stunning, and deservedly attain classical status. On the other hand, the film as a whole is a disappointment; a series of hits and misses, ending on a big miss.

American Beauty (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">American Beauty</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, September 1999) Even though Oscar buzz for this film is pretty high, I can’t say I’m cheering for it. Yes, Kevin Spacey is magnificent as the curiously sympathetic protagonist. But, -and this is almost certainly an age thing- I wasn’t deeply affected either by the middle-age crisis theme nor the adolescent-angst subplot, leaving me hanging straight in-between these two age groups. Granted, the movie is at times spectacularly funny, but then it predictably veers into the melodramatic and the deliberately-artsy, making me wish it would go back in comedy territory. The final line is pretty good, though.

Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia, Gregory Benford

Bard Avon, 1999, 225 pages, C$26.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97537-8

We human critters have a few deficiencies, and one of them is certainly our lack of capacity for long-term planning. Try as we might, our day-to-day combat through life almost invariably relates to the next meal, the next paycheck, the next project, the next summer vacations.

The problem is not as much with human individuals, but with the realization that no one else is making long-term planning either. Organized groups usually think too much in terms of upcoming elections, end-quarter results or continued sources of funding to be concerned about long-term perspectives. This is not exactly a bad thing (given the rate of technological and social change, most plans will crumble at long range anyway) but it can certainly become a problem in a few situations.

Deep Time, by noted scientist and SF author Gregory Benford, takes a look at a few concerns that will require more than our usual attention span. In the process, he raises some fundamental issues about the environment, technical progress, civilization lifespan and how even long-term science is conducted by short-term humans. The book is divided in four parts:

The first segment begins as Benford is asked to be part of a study team, mandated by the American Congress, to study ways of ensuring that nuclear waste sites will remain undisturbed for more than the 10,000 years required for their degradation to harmless levels. Putting “Dangerous stuff; keep out!” signs obviously won’t do, especially when we consider that 10,000 years is lengthier than the span of recorded human history. Benford’s team had to consider such cheery subjects as complete civilizational collapse, language drift, evolving digging technologies, relic hunters, etc… The team ended up proposing massive, eerie sculptural features, multiple-language messages with iconographic support and a host of other neat features. This is by far the most fascinating piece of the book.

The second quarter concerns the efforts of a group of scientists to compose an “ultimate” message-to-others to be carried on the Cassini space probe. Though most of us are familiar with the gold plaque loaded on the Voyager probes, this was meant to be an updated version of this effort. Unfortunately, even though an interesting message was developed, the effort was doomed and replaced by a politically-neutral DVD containing an utterly meaningless list of names…

[March 2009: I wrote this review in 1999 and, along the way, touched upon a conflict between Gregory Benford and Carolyn Porco described in the book’s “Vaults in Vacuum” chapter. In September 2002, Carolyn Porco wrote to me to explain that she disagreed with her characterization in Benford’s book and allowed me to post a few corrections. In March 2009, Gregory Benford wrote to me to explain that he disagreed with the corrections and suggested corrections of his own.

You know what? Life is too short, I respect both Benford and Porco (from afar) too much, and I’m too ignorant of the matters discussed to try to abitrate. All three of us have better things to do. So I have removed both the original content and the corrections (the most curious of you know where to go to find the archives), and would rather leave you with the smartest thing I’ve learned from this decade-long episode. In the (last) words of Carolyn Porco:

Next time, reserve judgement until you’ve met and spoken to the individuals involved.

The book become less interesting as Benford gets on a high environmental soapbox in the last half of the book. The third part still turns around a worthwhile idea, as Benford tells of his proposition to build a “Library of Life”, a repository of DNA from most of today’s species of plants and animals threatened by extinction. Though not a startlingly original project, Benford uses this as a springboard to other related subjects (conservationism, taxonomy, scientific politics, etc…).

But the fourth quarter grates as it veers off in a well-intentioned, but strikingly unoriginal rant about how humanity is already sending deep-time messages by environment degradation. Though Benford keeps things interesting with little-known facts, the impression left by this section is one of déjà-vu: Not exactly why one would pick up the book in the first place.

Additionally, Benford leaves out an important part of any deep time projection: The very real possibility of increased lifespans and of political stabilization. While this isn’t a flaw by itself, this omission does get a bit suspicious after the umpteenth time Benford talk about short human lives. Wouldn’t longevity undermine his thesis? Maybe…

Still, despite a rather heavy-handed environmentalist screed in the second half of the book, Benford keeps thing interesting, and Deep Time fulfills the goal of any decent non-fiction science vulgarization: Make us discover thing we didn’t know before. Or cared about.