Monthly Archives: September 2014

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

Crown, 2011, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0307887436

The rise of geek culture may not be new (if you’re looking for a watershed date, February 29th, 2004 will do nicely as it was a leap day that saw The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King win the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year) but it continues to astonish me.  How did descendants of the things that made me a social outcast in the eighties and nineties end up becoming a good chunk of today’s mainstream pop-culture?  Now that geekery has won over the mainstream, are we core-geeks poorer for having birthed the dominant culture?  Does being a geek even mean anything now that it’s a lucrative marketing category?

I may feel those questions even more intensely than most given how, in a few short years, I went from outcast to mainstream, from a single geeky technician to a married father knocking at management’s door.  The last videogame I have played for more than a few minutes was 2011’s Portal 2.  I’ve gone from attending ten SF conventions a year to one.  I’ve stepped into movie theatres only three times in the past two years.  I’m more interested in home improvement projects than zombie walks.  Frankly, I’m this close to dissociating myself from the geek label when it’s used more as a way to sell useless things than as a secondary marker for a shared world-view.

This is relevant to Ready Player One in that I was not exactly primed to enjoy a science-fiction novel that delights into celebrating eighties geek nostalgia.  I’m not an exact fit for the eighties-obsessed geek for a number of reasons (I was born in 1975, meaning that my prime geek years were the 1984-1994 decade; my household had Commodore-64/IBM computers rather than Atari/Nintendo gaming consoles; we didn’t have cable; and since I wasn’t speaking fluent English at the time, my personal culture wasn’t as dominated by the American standard) and while I’m still sympathetic to many of the things that typical geek culture includes, I’m increasingly reluctant to spend either time or money on the matter.  I am not, in a few words, nostalgic for the eighties.

But Ready Player One is almost entirely about eighties nostalgia.  It’s a novel whose Science-Fictional nature exists merely as scaffolding to tell a story about video-gaming and eighties ephemera.  It’s about a future world in which a deeply influential innovator has died, leaving behind a virtual treasure hunt based on his love of the geeky eighties.  Partially structured as a video game itself, Ready Player One begins with one of the lowest of the lows: an orphan teenager trying to piece together a living in a dystopian future where the only escape is through virtual reality.  Our hero is a self-described Gunter (as in: Easter-Egg hunter) obsessed with eighties trivia.  A lucky flash of insight, some good friends and a bit of luck eventually cause him to discover the first breakthrough in the treasure hunt and from that moment on, the novel seldom pauses for breath until the big-boss finale.

But the overarching plot isn’t quite as remarkable as the density of Ready Player One‘s deluge of geek references.  From video games to (rather fewer) movies, music and books, this is a novel that delights in nerdy nostalgia.  Being reasonably familiar with the subject matter, I’m happy to report that I didn’t find any glaring misuse of references or terms: Ernest Cline is the real deal, a geek-king-among-geeks who has internalized the language he speaks.

It’s that kind of honesty, combined with an entertaining prose style and some savvy page-turning tricks that make Ready Player One quite a bit better than just a simple nostalgia-fest.  It’s about the eighties, of course, but it’s also about how the eighties charted the way pop-culture evolved into today’s shape, with video games taking up such a cultural importance, and how the ideals of personal computing as developed then have led to the decentralized anarchy of the Internet.  The eighties may not have seem like much at the time, but they definitely set the stage for what followed and Ready Player One may be most interesting in tackling just what it did introduce into mainstream culture, sometimes decades later.

But of course, such socio-thematic consideration don’t amount to much compared to the actual text of the novel itself, a furiously readable page-turner that exists in its own reality.  Cline writes good characters, and if the foundations of his premise don’t bear much scrutiny, it’s a novel that chooses forward narrative momentum far above structural integrity.  It’s, perhaps even more importantly, extremely successful at what it does.  While it’s aimed at eighties fans, it should work roughly as well (absent extra flashes of recognition) on readers with more tenuous relationships to the eighties.  I was a bit surprised to like it as much, but the speed at which I tore through the novel speaks for itself.  Geekery or not, this should be a great read for everyone.

The Conjuring (2013)

(On Cable TV, September 2014) There’s something to be said for a well-executed horror film even when it doesn’t try to reinvent the genre or leave the viewers with permanent trauma.  So it is that The Conjuring harkens back to simpler times, when ordinary people were imperilled by supernatural horrors and extraordinary people could come to help them out.  Here, the Perron family (two adults, five daughters) finds itself threatened by demonic forces shortly after moving into a dilapidated farmhouse in 1971.  Financially desperate and concerned by increasing signs of evil, they call upon paranormal investigators to investigate and hopefully solve the case with minimal loss of life.  It’s as basic a premise for a horror film as can be, but there’s a lot to be said for director James Wan’s approach to the material and the quality of the script: from the first few moments, The Conjuring is carefully controlled, beguiling in the way it sets up its characters, creepy in showing us the setting and well-accomplished in its visuals.  We’re never comfortable, especially when the characters are so sympathetic. (Lili Taylor has a substantial role as the matriarch while Ron Livingstone plays dutiful husband, but it’s Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga who are most compelling as the Warrens, carefully inhabiting roles halfway between credible people and unflappable demon-hunters.)  Like an un-ironic old-school classic, The Conjuring carefully ramps up its creepiness into chills into scares into full-blown horror… and remarkably enough without showing much gore, nudity or profanity.  There’s nothing really new here (nor is there much in terms of thematic depth), but in horror even more than in other genres, execution is key and this film nails down the fundamentals.  It works even better as an antidote for routine horror movies that fail to even provide the basic scares.  Even the comforting finale is exactly what the film (and the characters) needed.  Throw The Conjuring in with films such as Sinister and its prototype Insidious, and you’ve got a good argument for an ongoing revival of good American mainstream horror.

Extracted aka Extraction (2012)

(On Cable TV, September 2014) Most low-budget SF movies to be found on cable movie channels are irremediable garbage, and knowing this only raises one question: why do I keep watching them?  The answer is found in Primer and Cube, two movies that show that a low budget can be coupled with a high imagination to deliver perfectly good SF on a budget.  Now that Cube and Primer are a decade old and aging fast, here comes Extracted to suggest (even if not as solidly) that the quest still isn’t fruitless.  Reportedly shot on a $100,000 budget, Extracted eventually manages to create an engaging SF story out of little more than a few conversations.  The scattershot beginning eventually clears up to reveal a scientist stuck in a criminal’s memories, victim of an unforeseen problem in trying to find out if the criminal has truly committed murder.  Eventually managing to make contact with his host’s mind, our protagonist tries to find a way out of his coma and find out the truth about the murder.  While the film doesn’t start out all that promisingly, it eventually develops a nice narrative velocity as it explains the rules of its universe and moves on to ever-more-complicated situations made possible by the film’s central idea.  While the ending is a bit messy, writer/director Nir Paniry is able to deliver a satisfying SF experience without fancy special effects.  I’m not convinced that the entire script holds up together, but the film does acknowledge the frailty of memories in making its final point, which is already not too bad.  Extracted is a film to be admired more than to be liked, but it works pretty well, and should satisfy jaded science-fiction fans even more than casual viewers.

Sand Sharks (2012)

(On Cable TV, September 2013)  With a title like that, what more is there to know?  Yup: sand sharks.  No, it’s not a monster movie that takes itself seriously, even though it’s curiously light on laughs despite everything else.  The limited budget even allows a welcome respite from gore… that is, until a sympathetic character gets an undignified death that plays badly in the middle of what could have been a light-hearted romp.  It’s a basic miscalculation that does much to undo what was until then a low-budget, low-quality but generally enjoyable production. (Heck, until then Sand Sharks was far more enjoyable than Piranha 3D.)  It’s assets like Brooke Hogan’s beach-bunny-playing-a-scientist that occasionally make Sand Sharks more interesting than it has any right to be: her atrocious acting is only matched by the quality of the material she’s given, but it somehow works in an odd way.  Still, don’t expect much more than a routine monster film: Sand Sharks may occasionally show a bit of wit (such as when the protagonists almost hold their breath for a monologuing character to be eaten… which happens a beat later), but it’s sabotaged by a routine script, threadbare production values and not-particularly-charismatic actors.  It’s duller than it should have been, even as a self-aware cheapo creature feature.

The Purge (2013)

(On Cable TV, September 2013) I hate it when an intriguing premise ends up leading to a strictly routine result.  While The Purge‘s premise is nonsensical (“Let’s allow all crime for the next 12 hours!  That’ll be sure to solve some problems rather than create more!”), it’s different enough to demand attention.  Unfortunately, the premise merely leads to a standard home-invasion thriller, as forced as it is dull.  I suppose I should be impressed by the way the big premise leads to a single-location low-budget movie with a small cast, but the lack of connection between the vast ambitions and narrative possibilities of The Purge‘s imagined future and the ordinary thriller that it expresses.  Big ideas about animalistic urges, fascist states, retribution and repercussions are hardly glanced in a script that doesn’t quite know what to do with what it has at its disposal.  Execution-wise, Ethan Hawke is once again wasted in a role that could have suited a multitude of other actors, while writer/director James DeMonaco doesn’t do much better as a director than as a screenwriter: The Purge is filled with sequences that could have been quite a bit better, had there been a bigger budget or a better imagination at hand.  Maybe someone will re-make it in a decade or two, and we’ll see a better take on the premise.

Epic (2013)

(On Cable TV, September 2013) I wish I had anything beyond a shrug to offer as a lasting reaction to this animated fantasy film.  It’s obvious that a lot of people worked a long time in order to create Epic.  Still, it falls flat: it hits its mark, provides what’s expected yet doesn’t manage to achieve a lasting impression.  Visually, some of the animation looks clumsy and the aesthetics of the film seem subtly unpleasant even when they don’t mean to.  The narrative threads aren’t hidden at all (even for a kid’s movie), and it does feel surprisingly long despite a short running time.  Blue Sky Studio’s filmography is filled with animated features that go on to make a lot of money despite routine results, and in this light Epic isn’t much of an aberration.  Struggling with having anything to add to this, I’ll simply note that the title is far too grandiose for such an average story, that some of the voice casting feel forced for show (Beyonce? Steven Tyler? Pitbull?) and that despite everything, it doesn’t quite feel like a waste of time.  I suppose there are worse choices for kids, although I’ll note that the fast-moving visuals and darker scenes mark it for the 8+ set.

Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein

Putnam, 1974 reprint of 1959 original, 208 pages, ISBN 0425026051

The second stop on my Heinlein Hugo-Winning Novels tour is a big one: 1959’s Starship Troopers still stands as one of the classics of the genre, a perennial best-seller, and a deeply influential piece of work.  It has spawned a (grotesquely mutated) series of movies, has recognizably shaped what’s known today as military science-fiction and remains a flashpoint for any discussion in the SF community.  Having read it nearly twenty years ago, I remembered fondly as a crackling good story about a young man’s military training and subsequent (early) career.  It was my pick for the best SF novel of 1959 in drafting my list of Alternate Hugos.

Having it read once more, I don’t have to temper my assessment much.  It’s still a heck of a good read.  The training section is just as interesting as I remembered it.  With a two more decade’s reading experience in SF, I can now see even more clearly to which extent it has shaped military SF, and why so many books claim it as influence.

But it’s what I didn’t remember, or how I have evolved in the past two decades that make this re-read so interesting.

First up are the numerous passages in which the story takes a break and Heinlein addresses his reader through a series of classroom conversations and outright lecturing about the nobility of military service.  For a novel in which I remembered mostly the armored suits and boot-camp sequences, it’s amazing how much of Starship Troopers is a frank philosophical treaty discussing what makes a citizen, and the burdens of being a member of the military.  Amazingly enough, those passages remain fascinating despite my now-vehement opposition to the ideas presented here as self-obvious fact.  I may now believe that effective governance and accountability is a far more effective democratic tool than disciplined and engaged voters, but Heinlein’s gift for vivid argumentation is what makes the novel so interesting to read.  There’s far more philosophy than powered armour in this novel, and that’s a good thing.

This leads directly my second mini-revelation about the novel.  For years, I watched online debates about Starship Troopers and accepted that the universe of the novel wasn’t necessarily as fascistic as its opponents made it out to be: after all, wasn’t there a mention about federal service also including non-combatant, possibly even civilian roles?  After re-reading the novel, I remain a fan but let’s not kid ourselves: there’s enough textual evidence to highlight that Heinlein clearly meant to suggest that military service was the one true path to enlightened citizenship, and that everything else was secondary.  The focus of the novel is such that it doesn’t really allow a look in civilian federal service, but there are countless allusions to the military-first mindset.  (Notably the shame through which people quit boot-camp, forever relinquishing their vote.)  Let’s just accept it: Yes, Heinlein, an Annapolis military academy graduate, meant military service.  If you disagree, write your own novel.

Plenty of people did, with good reason: It’s impossible to read the novel’s first chapter today, as the heavily-armored characters lay waste to a city in a self-avowed nuisance raid, without having a few deep misgivings about the gleeful portrayed destruction, and flashbacks to any of the wars the United States has been involved in for the past fifty years.  Heck, I now consider it mandatory to follow up my reading of Starship Troopers with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.  Times have changed, but if you’re into ballpark comparisons, consider that Heinlein wrote this novel at a 13-year distance from World War 2, roughly the same temporal gap that separates 2014 readers from 2001’s 9/11.  (And we all know how that continues to shape our popular culture.)  Even then, though, the novel hasn’t aged as badly as you may think.  Heinlein pretty much wrote the book on military SF, and everyone else is still riffing off his basic ideas.  (We’ll leave for another time the possibility that interstellar war using infantrymen is a ridiculous concept: if you’re going to cling to the idea of “boots on alien planets”, might as well do it the way Heinlein did.)  I’m not sure how long this may last once the progressive automation of first-world military forces migrates from the air to the ground, but for now the novel is still relevant.

For a genre novel that’s celebrating its fifty-fifth anniversary of publication, “still relevant” is not a bad review.  At the time it was written, Heinlein was hitting his peak as a writer, and the sheer joy of reading the story is more than enough to spackle over the techno-militarism mindset that permeates it.  (Mathematical proofs of political arguments?  Yeah, sure, whatever.)  It’s written with enough verve that it’s easy to misremember that it’s not a wall-to-wall action spectacular, or that our protagonist isn’t exactly the sharpest mind in the toolbox.  It may even earn a bit of respect by being a book that is now impossible to take at face value: You have to argue with it almost as a matter of obligation.  Heinlein’s greatest achievement may have been in crafting an irresistible argument as much as a paean to his own military experience… and a decent coming-of-age story as well.  I went into this re-reading project asking whether the novels still held up, and Starship Troopers sure does, with obligatory caveats.

Stranded (2013)

(On Cable TV, September 2014)  Oy…  Repeat after me: low-budget Canadian science-fiction movies are rarely good.  Having been burned a few times already, I really should know better by now.  Still, there’s a lower threshold of quality that one expects, and it’s fascinating to see Stranded struggle to even meet that basic level.  The first five minutes are almost promising, as a small crew on a lunar mining base is threatened by a catastrophic meteoroid impact.  Is this a survival story?  Alas, no: Within moments, the lone female character discovers something alien, is impregnated, gives birth to a shape-shifting monster that decides to look like another character and then go on to kill enthusiastically.  Dull stuff, rapidly crashing at the bottom of the list of Alien rip-offs.  Stranded is so bad that I’m actually offended at the impregnation subplot, which throws a charged plot development in the middle of a movie that doesn’t earn or deserve such emotional heavy-lifting.  Beyond the dull characters and repetitive scripting, much of the rest of the movie is just too dull to care about: badly-lit, limply propelled forward, saddled with an Earth-bound epilogue that weakens the result rather than strengthen it, Stranded is just yet another Canadian SF film filmed in a dim warehouse (in no less a film powerhouse than Regina, Saskatchewan) featuring a handful of characters and a monster.  With this, director Roger Christian has actually made a film worse than his own Battlefield Earth, which is praise of an impressive sort.  Poor Christian Slater looks a bit confused here: sure, he’s getting paid, but is it all worth it?  I was sort-of-impressed to see obvious models being used for moon-base shots rather than CGI: Nowadays, it’s the kind of artistic decision that shows a commitment to lack of quality, and speaks for the rest of the film.

The Legend of Sarila (2013)

(On Cable TV, September 2014)  Even considered as a movie aimed at kids, The Legend of Sarila has its rough spots: the computer animation is primitive compared to what we’re used to see from bigger studios, the direction is sometimes off, the script is hobbled by obvious dialogue and the story doesn’t have any surprises.  Still, this is one of those films that make even jaded reviewers wary of too much negativity: Taking place in the Canadian North and featuring Inuit characters, The Legend of Sarila has a considerable amount of home-grown charm.  The focus on Inuit culture, mythology and traditional ways of living (even simplified for purposes of a film) is unusual enough; the fact that it was almost entirely put together using Canadian talent is inspiring.  So it is that it’s hard to be overly harsh on The Legend of Sarila: it’s the kind of film that exemplifies why we have cultural financing in this country.  I’m even glad that it was partially financed using public dollars.  Just don’t ask me to pretend that it’s up to par with other computer-animated films that cost ten times as much.

Venus & Vegas (2010)

(On Cable TV, September 2014)  The problem with low-budget comedies is that when they’re not particularly well-handled, they can become ridiculous in ways that take away from their intent.  Venus & Vegas is definitely a low-budget film.  Alas, this low-budget translates not in cheap locations (the Vegas footage is actually impressive) as much as in ill-conceived sequences, bad staging, actors mugging for the camera without a strong director to rein them in, and a script that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself.  Donald Faison isn’t too bad as the nominal leader of a trio of small-time robbers dealing with romantic complications, but the rest of the actors are either a bit too enthusiastic or not being told which register they should aim for: As a result, Venus & Vegas often challenges basic suspension of disbelief with over-acting, unconvincing blocking and sitcom-level writing.  It doesn’t help that the female characters are plot devices, that the direction is bland and that the ending is rushed.  Fortunately, it does remain a comedy with a sympathetic atmosphere throughout: it’s hard to be mad at a film so eager to please.  Still, a pleasant moment or two isn’t quite enough to pretend that Venus & Vegas is anything but a low-budget comedy that occasionally hits its mark.

Solomon Kane (2009)

(On Cable TV, September 2014)  I applaud any attempt to bring pulp heroes back to life through modern movies, but if the result is going to be as limp and by-the-numbers as Solomon Kane… I can wait a while longer.  It’s especially damning given that the first five minutes of the film suggest a far more engaging experience than what we actually get.  Here’s a hint: If you have a swashbuckling hero, it’s a good idea not to restrain him with a pacifist oath for the first half of the film.  While technically well-made and visually convincing, Solomon Kane simply goes nowhere for much of an hour, and the resulting lack of energy almost kills the film.  James Purefoy (looking eerily like Hugh Jackman) isn’t too bad as the hero, and it is kind-of interesting to see veterans like Max von Sydow and Pete Postlethwaite in small roles.  Still, much of the film is overly contemplative when it should be far more action-driven: Promised a pulp hero, we’re stuck with a brooding anti-hero dabbling in nonviolence.  I don’t mind a bit of depth and introspection, but writer/director Michael J. Bassett takes it too far.  By the time the action moves to castle heroics late in the film, it’s too late and too bland to impress –the slight revelations twists are obvious early on, and the film doesn’t take too many chances on its way to a conclusion.  It’s not a bad film for its budget, but it is blander than it should have been –the fact that it was completed in 2009 and made its American cable-TV debut five years later does hint at how unspectacular the result is.

Lock-In, John Scalzi

Tor, 2014, 336 pages, $28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0765375865

I had no intention to read Lock-In so quickly after its publication date.

I knew that I would read it eventually, of course.  In barely more than ten years, John Scalzi has become a best-selling SF author on the strength of a series of novels executing classic concepts with clear prose and smart-ass dialogue.  His fiction usually feature an easy-to-read mixture of light-hearted action that have made him difficult to avoid in any serious discussion of the current state-of-the-genre. (His strong Internet presence doesn’t hurt either.) His novels sell widely, earn decent reviews and regularly show up on the Hugo ballot.  I have a foot-long shelf full of hardcover Scalzi novels dating back to his debut Old Man’s War, and I knew that I would eventually get around to Lock-In.  Just not so soon, given my lack of time, overflowing to-read stacks and busy life in general.  Also: Lock In deals with locked-in syndrome, the kind of nightmare fuel that seems so far away from the lighthearted entertainment I’ve come to expect from Scalzi.

Then I woke up one morning with the worst acute torticollis of my life.  Reduced to lying down on the couch, any movement causing severe neck pain feeding back on itself in a spiral of spasms… my life quickly dwindled down to me, the couch and whatever portable device I was able to lift in front of my eyes.

Suddenly, Lock-In became far more relevant.  Thanks to the modern wonders of Wi-Fi and eBooks, I didn’t even have to get up to purchase it.  And so, for a while, I could forget the pain by reading about disabled people using remote bodies to live their life.

Lock In begins two decades after an epidemic (“Hayden’s syndrome”) that leaves millions of people “locked in” their own bodies, fully conscious but unable to move.  This having led to a massive research and development program, the future of Lock In features auxiliary bodies (“threeps”) in which locked-in victims are able to work and play.  Society is still adapting to this systematic separation of body and self, with further adjustments anticipated when the US government passes a bill ending the major financial incentives and government-sponsored programs that have led to such a technological revolution.

Against this larger backdrop, our protagonist Chris is a newly-minted police agent who quickly gets to experience a major case.  Except that Chris is a mini-celebrity by virtue of having been a visible early victim of Hayden’s syndrome and having a famous father.

When clues pile up that a simple murder case has wider and wider ramification, Lock In becomes an exemplary procedural SF thriller in which we get to explore a new future through the lens of a criminal case.  There are plenty of precedents to this kind of SF novel, from Asimov’s Caves of Steel to Kevin J. Anderson’ Hopscotch to Sean Williams’ The Resurected Man to (more relevantly) the comic book series The Surrogates –SF, identity issues and criminal cases have long enjoyed a beneficial relationship.  Not that this an easy kind of SF to write: Novels of this type have a tendency to mine the possibilities of a change until everything has been exposed by the end of the novel, leaving the impression of a very small universe.  Or they depend on implausible technological innovation and economic models, leaving the impression of a half-baked imaginary setting.

Fortunately, Lock In does it better than most: The rapid change in technology in barely two decades is explained away by Manhattan-Project-scale investments by the American government, the free-market forces shown at work in the novel are clearly patterned from the real world, and there’s a good degree of granularity and texture to the end-state, quite unlike some naive SF futures.  I still have a number of vexing questions about the adoption, or mandated lack thereof, of threeps for non-Hayden victims (including their use by military forces), but those tend to be second-order questions that aren’t immediately obvious from the story that Scalzi is telling.  Better yet is the feeling that not all of this future’s secrets have been revealed by the end of the book, keeping it credible at best, and at worst open to a lengthy series of sequels.

As for my early hesitations about the doom and gloom of reading about locked-in characters, I shouldn’t have worried: Scalzi is just as entertaining here, as the story picks up years after the mass trauma of the Hayden’s syndrome epidemic, and at a point when victims are no so locked-in.  This is an upbeat novel, often truly funny and at other times enlivened with spectacular action.  It’s a fast and easy read, and while I’m not overly happy about the linear way the story ends (or the way some early info-dumps are handled by dialogue rather than narration), it’s a book with good set-pieces and vigorous extrapolation throughout.

There’s also a bit of depth here that may not be obvious as readers race through the novel.  I was impressed, for instance, to see that Lock In does manage to address a number of issues relevant to disabled people (including the very notion that a disability is a disability), a group that is rarely represented in mainstream SF.  Other questions of identity abound, including something that I completely missed during my read-through: the gender identity of the narrator is never revealed, and in fact seems a bit irrelevant.  (Being named Chris and knowing that Scalzi is male, I naturally defaulted to “male” in identifying the narrator, a viewpoint that seemed bolstered by a few later anecdotes that code themselves as male to me.  But there is no textual evidence in the text to indicate for sure that Chris is male.)  Why I’m not usually interested by such games of narrative identity (see, for instance, my non-impressed reaction to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice), the beauty of Lock In is that you can, like me, read through the book and never even notice that it’s there.  Well done.

My torticollis ultimately lasted a bit longer than my experience with Lock-In (sleep carefully, readers!), but during that time it was hard to avoid noticing the novel making an appearance on the New York Times best-seller list.  I’m sure that a Hugo nomination will follow: Scalzi is one of the top SF writers of the moment and books such as Lock In, more ambitious than many of his previous novels, will keep him actively engaged in the discussion that is genre fiction.  If my neck was in any shape to do so, I’d nod appreciatively.

Escape Plan (2013)

(On Cable TV, September 2014)  Once upon a time, in the early nineties, a film featuring both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone would have been An Event fit to explode all box-office records, fannish expectations and critical snark.  Now, more than twenty years later, Escape Plan is… just another action B-movie, anchored by familiar faces but not nearly as earth-shattering as it could have been.  It probably doesn’t help that the film revolves around Stallone (rarely a good actor, now increasingly ridiculous in his mumbling old age) and a rather hum-drum plot the likes of which we’ve seen a few times already.  The action sequences are limp (although two of the fight scenes offer the expected pleasure of seeing Stallone and Schwarzenegger trade a few body-blows), the villains are bland and the film doesn’t build up to much more than the obvious conclusion.  Sure, there’s a few twists and turns and flashy “here’s how I did it” explanations… but the film simply has the feel of a low-budget action movie that just happens to feature two of the biggest box-office stars of two decades ago.  Escape Plan has the merit of not being actively bad or unpleasant, just not as distinctive as it should have been considering the past caliber of its stars.

The Divide (2011)

(On Cable TV, September 2014) Every so often, the jaded reviewer that I am is pushed out of his complacency by an extraordinarily dislikable film.  Lately, I’ve been feeling increasingly irritated by nihilistic horror films: I can’t see their reason to exist, and having to go through 90 minutes of bleakness to be told another variation on “they all died” at the end is infuriating when even freeing up half an hour of my time to watch movies is a challenge.  This, obviously, brings us to The Divide, a pointless post-apocalyptic horror film in which unpleasant characters do terrible things to one another until only one is left.  To be fair, the opening sequence is pretty good (as residents of a Brooklyn apartment building see nuclear destruction rain down and force their way to a basement bunker) and the first half-hour suggested a much bigger film opening up.  But as The Divide turns inward after an unexplainably early jaunt outside the bunker, things get less and less interesting as torture, rape and murder come to dominate the proceedings.  Our heroine is one by default, being the only one not actively trying to inflict harm on others.  Not that there are any credible alternatives, given the way nearly everyone turns cartoonish psychotic.  Successive deaths come as a relief to the viewer as they hint at a film that will end out of lack of characters.  While Xavier Gens doesn’t do all badly as the director, there are some very dumb decisions baked into the script, from a first-act escapade outside the bunker that is then ignored for the rest of the film, unanswered questions, limp characters and an ending that doesn’t resolve anything as much as it stops out of bodies to ruin.  Intense? Perhaps –although my attention wandered during the increasingly bleak second half.  (How bleak? Well –and there’s no nice way to put this– a character is raped to death.) I’d rather call it meditative, although not in the sense that the filmmakers intended: As the onscreen ugliness intensified, my attention wandered to all that is good and beautiful about our world.  Life’s too short and beautiful to suffer through nihilistic trash like this.  I’ll take any meaningless romantic comedy over a second viewing of The Divide.

After the Dark aka The Philosophers (2013)

(On Cable TV, September 2014) Now here’s something unusual: A framing story set in a philosophy class being used as pretext to present three different scenarios of post-apocalyptic survival.  As the seemingly logic-driven teacher plays head games with his students, interactions between the scenarios and the framing story become more obvious, logic is challenged by passion and we get a hefty dose of ethics and morality along the way.  Not bad, even though much of the interplay between the classroom and the scenarios could have been strengthened, even though the setup of logic as the enemy to be defeated is tiresome, even though some characters are given severe short thrift, and even though the ending becomes increasingly atonal as comedy and melancholy each compete for attention.  Still, After the Dark has a pretty good sense of humor, indulges into elaborate games of philosophy, upends tedious lifeboat ethics lessons and becomes, reassuringly enough, a rare example of humanist post-apocalyptic fiction.  Writer/director John Huddles should be proud of the result. The appealingly multiracial cast is used effectively, with Sophie Lowe acting a luminous beacon of empathy against the logical mind-games of James D’Arcy’s teacher character and Daryl Sabara getting the film’s biggest laugh near the end.  It’s an unconventional film in many ways, but it does linger on questions rarely addressed in any other ways, and gets honorable Science-Fiction credentials for its willingness to play with big ideas on a restrained scale.