Mainline, Deborah Christian

Tor, 1996, 374 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-54908-2

I really wanted to like Mainline. After all, it’s a good SF thriller; full of explosions, double-crosses, sophisticated gadgetry and bisexual females… but the overall effect is more akin to ennui than to excitement.

In other words, “I just wasn’t in the mood, dear.”

The plot summary is promising enough: So in the far future, there’s this expert assassin named Reva. She’s got an advantage that other assassin would very certainly kill for: The ability to see, and travel to parallel realities. Is this a threatening situation? Quick check on the fourth axis: Yeah? Okay… Want to escape quickly? Exit by the orthogonal plane…

As the novel opens, Reva is used to this kind of stuff. Good at her job, she doesn’t have any friends (hard to keep’em when travelling across realities) nor any kind of moral fibre: He reaction to danger is to flee.

But, -ah-ha!- she soon hooks up with a girl called Lish and suddenly, it’s not so easy to leave a reality behind. (Meanwhile, Lish has problems all of her own. Like a few million dollars worth of debt, and two assassins with contracts on her life. But that’s later on.) A lot of potential there for a thoughtful exploration of tenacity and friendship: Actual execution is only fair, with moments of brilliance and others of mere adequacy.

(French-speaking readers will have no doubt noticed that Lish is pronounced much like the French equivalent to… nah…)

At 374 pages, Mainline is too long; a few subplots could have been axed, to be replaced by other threads if necessary. Characters are okay, and so is the ending. My lukewarm reaction to this book doesn’t mean that this is an inferior novel… just that subjective opinions can, and are, less than constant.

I felt that Reva’s almost-magical psi-power was a bit misused (a usual problem with psi-powers) but that the various gadgets were fairly imaginative, and sure to be stolen by some movie in the near future. Miss Christian (love the name 🙂 ) writes mean action scenes, once the reader is immersed in her prose.

I do not enthusiastically recommend Mainline, but neither do I really recommend avoiding it. Call it “a foreign movie” on the Sid-and-Nancy scale, and a “Borrow it if there’s nothing else to read” rating on the library scale.

Wildside, Steven Gould

Tor, 1996, 316 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-52398-9

Readers of Wildside may very well find one word ringing in their mind during the whole book.


Ultra-competent young hero. Importance of self-sufficiency. Sex-hungry cast of characters. Distrust of the power of government. Coming-of-age novel. Easily readable yet detailed prose. Enjoyable first-person POV… Yep, that’s a Heinlein book all right!

While modern, civilised man is a creature of flesh, asphalt and silicon, there is always a part of us that mourns for the untouched beauty of nature. How else to explain natural parks, summer homes in rural regions, camping and the popularity of westerns? Similarly, most of us would pay obscene amounts of money to have a pristine “world” all of our own.

Enters Science-Fiction, which has years of experience in describing The Doorway. (In addition of being a doorway in itself) The Doorway is usually some kind of unassuming passage, leading to a world very much unlike our own. In Wildside, it’s an alternate Earth untouched by humans. Wondrous creatures such as passenger pigeons, sabertooth tigers and mammoths still roam free though the countryside.

But, as the jacket copy says, “the door belongs to Charlie Newell”. And that’s a problem in itself. Not that Charlie is weak or incompetent: He’s able to take care of himself, live alone on a small ranch and pilot planes. Not bad for someone whose high-school graduation occurs in the first pages of the novel.

But every protagonist has to have a few problems, and Charlie’s no exception. He loves Marie who’s going out with Joey, who has a drinking problem. All of the above will have an impact on subsequent events. When Charlie shows The Doorway to four of his friends (Marie and Joey included) and make them an offer they can’t really refuse, the plot begins.

A fascinating part of the novel are the meticulous preparations Charlie and his friends must take to function on the Wildside: Small planes, support equipment, skydiving lessons and pilot training for everyone. For once, conquering the unexplored doesn’t seem to be an improvisational endeavour. The steps are authentically detailed, down to the small-aircraft lingo.

Technically, this is an admirable novel: The prose is dirt-simple, but not without merit. All characters are meticulously defined. After only a few pages, they begin to take form. The plot is well handled (if not without lengths in the second third), the conclusion is suitably mind-expanding… and Charlie finally does get (a) girl.

Wildside is sufficiently impressive to make one interested in the author’s previous works. After all, could one read only one Heinlein novel?

Future Net, Ed. Martin H. Greenberg & Larry Segrif

DAW, 1996, 315 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-88677-723-2

Familiarity breeds contempt.

So here I am, uber-internet Nerd, browsing in the library, checking out the new paperback section, and WOOF! There it is, with the ugly neon pink-and-green cover: Future Net, an anthology of SF short stories about, what else, the Net. Three nanoseconds of hesitation, then it’s a direct path to the checkout counter. What’s more hip than Net stories?

But there is a thing as being too hip. There’s nothing as annoying as a new cliché, and Future Net revels in them.

For instance, the concept of a disabled person assuming a completely new identity on the Internet, or somehow being liberated by the immaterial medium of high-tech communications, is not new. It might even have been exciting the first few times I’ve read it. But no less than four of the sixteen stories of Future Net deal with this kind of protagonist. Granted, one of them (Billie Sue Mosiman’s “Shining on”) is potent, but the remainder… tear-jerk time! (And your reaction may vary slightly, especially when the grandmother bites the electrical cable… but that’s a spoiler.)

Most of the attraction of Net stories, I suspect, resides in the dichotomy between body and mind, or true self versus idealized self. So, we get tons of stories about people passing for (better) other personalities, in addition to the fore-mentioned handicapped stories.

The other big theme, of course, is the difference between reality and illusion. Phil K. Dick didn’t need the Net to do this, and frankly the Net hasn’t helped the authors very much here.

Most of the book is strictly routine, like the Four Crippled Protagonists, and the stories with such innovative titles as “Ghost in the Machine” and “Fatal Error 1000”. A few authors shine through, like Gregory Benford with “Zoomers” (Easily the best story, mostly because it deals with its own internal logic.) and John Delancie with “O! The Tangled Web” (Starts off badly, but regains strength at the end. Should have been shorter.) Honourable mention to “Ghost in the Machine” (John Helfers), “Lover Boy” (Daniel Ransom) and “Someone who understands me” (Matthew Costello), even if that last one has a conclusion that’s very obvious, even from page two.

Hard SF fans will want to pass this book: The really horrible stuff assumes that the Net is a new name for Magic, and we get Coyote Viruses, after-life browsers, dead spouses infiltrating computer systems and other really, really silly stuff. This is fantasy at its worst, and I am quite unable to find words describing what should be done to the authors who commit this kind of trash.

And I am unable to avoid mentioning the story in which two super-computer whiz (both ridiculously young, of course) stumble into a dastardly plot with worldwide repercussions and successfully foil it!! Egawd!! For your kill-files, the name of the story is “Souvenirs and Photographs” and the author’s Jody Lynn Nye.

Most of the worst stories use present-day technology is completely unrealistic ways. I’ve used the Internet daily since 1993 and being familiar with today’s capacities diminished considerably my interest in Fluffy-goody-magic Net misconceptions. Especially damnable was “Freedom” (Mickey Zucker Reichert), with… urg… I feel gagging reflexes already.

To make a long and boring reading short; avoid. You’d be better off buying the next Benford anthology to read “Zoomers,” and samewise for the DeLancie and Costello stories. DAW didn’t impress me very much with Future Net.

The Other End of Time, Frederik Pohl

Tor, 1996, 348 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-53519-7

Frederik Pohl is surely one of the most professional SF writer in the business today. He regularly turns out book after book of rarely great, but always competent fiction. His latest, The Other End of Time, won’t win him any awards, but will surely entertain legions of his fans.

The first hundred page of the novel are almost a remake of his previous novel The Cool War : An unpleasant future (2031), where people routinely carry an assortment of weapons, Florida is trying to separate and where inflation runs a 2-3% a day.

We meet the two principal characters: Dan Dannerman, secret agent sent to spy on his rich cousin Patricia Adcock. A few dozen pages of the usual urban SF later, five humans are abducted by aliens and the novel shifts tone entirely. The next hundred pages or so are a sort of prison drama, where our five -no, seven!- protagonists try to outwit their captors. This is the best part of the book, being focused in terms of action and characters.

The conclusion is a letdown, however, as things happen in random order and no real progress is made. The end comes so abruptly that one wonders if Pohl was just tired of the novel and decided to end it as quickly. as possible, while letting himself just enough leeway for a sequel.

Pohl’s style is what we have come to expect from him: Quick and efficient, but not without a certain streamlined elegance. The pace is uneven, but everything can be disposed of in a few hours.

Hard-SF fans and atheists will be displeased at the casual usage of a plot device that appears much more magical than anything else. The implication of the “duplicator” device is well thought-of, even if I feel that more could have been done with it.

Overall, The Other End of Time feels more than the first salvo in a series of galactic adventures than a particularly entertaining stand-alone. Aimed at Pohl fans, mostly.

Callahan’s Legacy, Spider Robinson

Tor, 1996, 217 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85776-4

Asking me to review Callahan’s Legacy is akin to ask a priest to judge a wet T-shirt contest. Sure, it might be enjoyable but does he really agree with this stuff? No chance!

Robinson’s “Callahan” series is usually about places (bars, two times out of three) where people come in to feel better, be witty and indulge in adult pleasures. (sex, drugs and alco’holl). There is an assorted gallery of wacky characters, wackier situations, and the wackiest wordplay you’ll find anywhere. Everything is told from an impeccably delightful narrator’s voice, probably the wittiest 1st-person-POV this side of Heinlein. In short, it’s a blast.

But as it so often happens with this kind of light-hearted fiction, our enjoyment goes out when the plot comes in. The first half of the book is almost completely fun: Only a first chapter marred by tasteless pregnancy/urine/sex jokes diminishes the fun. Once Mary’s Place (the bar) opens for the night, the book really gets in gear.

So the roof is removed by a tornado (only to be replaced by another almost immediately afterward) and the first irregular comes in, opens a guitar case full of hundred-dollar bills and begin shaping paper airplanes out of them, only to throw them into the fire. (Every good bar has a fireplace, of course.) More wordplay ensues and then the weird stuff happens.

But when Mary Callahan and her husband time-teleport in the middle of the bar, the Earth’s very existence is suddenly in peril and the novel’s jolly (harmless) tone changes to something slightly more bitter. Before long, one of the bar’s regular is describing his homosexual experiences (told in dialect, no less!) the narrator’s wife is giving birth, everyone’s linked in a oh-so-sensual group consciousness and the world’s biggest threat is knocking at the door. Add the use of recreational drugs in the mix (I hope you don’t mind the orgy taking place in the background, sir?) and I’m beginning to get seriously annoyed.

Which is, I believe, Robinson’s intent: How straight is the world today! How many problems are we creating for ourselves by rejecting free love and a few good joints! Quick, Batman, let’s go back to the sixties!

What makes it irritating is the smug, no-discussion-is-allowed tone the book takes. Much like it’s impossible to disagree with Heinlein, any difference of opinion with Robinson is a sign of a traumatized existence.

Reading a book review is sometime as revealing of the reviewer than it is of the book. The last paragraphs are doubtlessly the product of a closed mind, will mumble a few. So be it.

Yet, despite my objections to elements of the book’s conclusion, Callahan’s Legacy is fun. While the puns aren’t all equal (a few of them are downright obscure… and the fact that English is my second language doesn’t really help.) there are a few good ones and the initial atmosphere of the bar is pleasant. One almost wishes that somewhere, there is such a thing as Callahan’s. While the effect may lessens after a while (I’ve seen a few jaded reader comment that Callahan’s Legacy was inferior to the other books.) this is a novel that will leave you smiling at the fun and groaning at the puns. Readers beware!

Contact, Carl Sagan

Pocket, 1990 (1997 reprint), 434 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-00410-7

A better movie than the book. A smart summer flick. A motion picture where the science at least tries to be exact. A smart, beautiful, atheist heroine.

Compared to these four impossibilities, alien contact seems almost pedestrian. Yet, CONTACT achieves all of them. The mind wobbles. Only the supervision of the great late Carl Sagan could make it possible.

When a female astronomer (Ellie Arroway) discovers an alien message embedded in a radio signal from Vega, it’s up to her to convince the world of the importance of her discovery. Along the way, she’ll have to face up to the death of her father and the entwined nature of science and religion…

I thought that Contact the novel wasn’t exceptional. Sure, the message detection sequence was superb, as were the various steps toward the construction of the Machine and the selection of the candidates. However, the novel simply tried too hard to reconcile religion and science, the Josh Palmer character was unsympathetic, Ellie Arroway didn’t really grab me and the conclusion, while memorable, (they find an unambiguous message from God in Pi=3.1415…) didn’t quite fit with my atheist convictions. While Sagan was being more or less even-handed, he did so in a very subtle manner. When I heard that a movie was in the making, I first despaired: Subtlety isn’t Hollywood’s greatest strength, and I was ready to see an adaptation with all the craftiness of an elephant in a chemistry lab. Oops.

I went alone to see CONTACT, more out of unfortunate consequences than any desire to see it alone. I even sat in the middle of the fourth row, in complete defiance to usual movie-going behaviour. Waited impatiently as the usual crowd of high-school morons settled around, more interested in smooching than expanding their minds. And then the movie started.

The good news are that CONTACT is the purest, hardest science-fiction movie… ever. The bad news is that it’s good, but not great. As much as I wanted to love the movie, at best I could only like it. As expected, there was too much of a senseless debate on science versus religion. (With no clear winner according to the movie… but it had to cheat badly to do so: The senate hearing scene at the end is completely boffo. I was busy coming up with hard arguments against the “theory” while Ellie’s character simply followed the screenwriter’s direction to play dumb as not to ruin the movie’s point.) It’s no 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, but 2001 is the only motion picture it can be compared to.

But never mind what the movie does wrong. What’s more important is what the movie does right. An exceptional female protagonist. A blind astronomer. Savvy movie-making. Stunning “invisible” digital effects. A solid grasp of science. Effortless scientific vulgarization. In short, smart (if misguided) SF.

Zemeckis has managed the proverbial good science-fiction movie. For this only, I am in awe. CONTACT is a solid contender for the Oscars. While I would have rather have had seen THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, it is comforting to think that at least, CONTACT has been made.

The Seeds of Time, Kay Kenyon

Bantam Spectra, 1997, 513 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57681-X

Metals. Petals.

The debate rages on: Should SF focus on the hardware or the software? Is Hard-SF inherently soulless? Are characters studies doomed to be scientifically laughable? Is scientific obsession the path to environmental bliss or collapse? Kay Kenyon’s first novel, The Seeds of Time, makes good use of these themes, and offers a compelling read.

Clio Finn is one of the select few able to pilot spaceships through time. The goal is nothing less than to save the Earth: All flora is dying out, and the only hope is to find another planet with compatible, resistant biology. (Other planets by time travel: As you know, solar systems move through space and time…)

Of course, a lot of things will happen to Clio between page 1 and 513. She’s not exactly the kind of meek, slavish heroine so prevalent everywhere. Nor is she an imperturbable ice queen: Brash but vulnerable, she’s one of the most engaging protagonist in recent memory.

A memorable heroine isn’t the only good thing about The Seeds of Time: The novel can boasts of a fast-moving plot enhanced by a completely readable style. Unlike other books that wander aimlessly around the main plot, this book stays focused: Events quite simply happen. Chapter after chapter, characters die, sleep together, or beat up the heroine. Or so it seems.

The future(s) described by Kenyon is depressing: In 2018, Earth is dying, extreme paranoia against AIDS (we presume) is the source of severe repression against deviant social behaviour, a Nazi-like institution rules over the United States… Experienced readers are already shaking their heads in déjà-vu, not to mention the unlikeliness of such social drastic changes in 20 years (even if stranger things have already happened.) But wait! Before long, alternate realities are brought into the plot and everyone can shake their heads, at least contended that there is a rational explanation.

The last hundred pages are unsatisfying, a case of “too much too fast”, but the ride up to then is quite a blast. Besides the heroine, most characters are sharply drawn and despite a large cast of supporting characters, no one is confused. (Although a few names are unintentionally suggestive: This reviewer couldn’t help but imagine Harlan Ellison in Ellison Brisher’s role, and Rene Russo playing the eponymous “Captain Russo” character.) There is also a fair amount of melodrama in The Seeds of Time but to Kenyon’s credit, it didn’t appear forced or too annoying.

More about the conclusion: The alternative offered to Clio seemed a bit too… radical. A compromise would have worked better on several levels, not the least of them being the metal/petal debate, which seems too sharply divided to allow for real shades of opinion. SF isn’t about easy answers… and this seemed like one.

A superior protagonist, a fast-moving plot and competent storytelling makes The Seeds of Time a good book, and an excellent first novel. Despite a few reservations, one could do worse than buy it.

Spawn (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Spawn</strong> (1997)

(In theaters, July 1997) This adaptation of the comic-book series is more or less faithful to the original, and is surprisingly entertaining provided you enter the theatre with the right frame of mind. A dark and stylish (if sucky) story combined with some great (and not-so-great) cartoonish CGI makes this a nice, un-ambitious matinee. Standout performance from John Leguizamo as “The Clown.” Spawn sometimes feels like an expensive pilot for a TV series… hopes are that the presumed sequel will be superior.

The Piano (1993)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Piano</strong> (1993)

(On TV, July 1997) Just a hint: If you ever have to watch this movie, don’t do it half-heartedly, with an eye on the TV and another on the computer screen. If you do, you run the risk of thinking during most of the movie that the husband in this tale of (righteous) adultery is a decent, if uncommunicative, fellow, who’s absolutely right to be angry when his wife goes to sleep (among other things…) with another man. (The end of the movie permits no ambiguity, of course.) Furthermore, you risk being more than unimpressed by the “erotic sensuality” of the hole-in-stocking scene (didn’t do much for me, really) and generally bored by everything. One scene (you’ll know it) shook me, but the remainder… is to be watched with undivided attention, I guess.

Nimitz Class, Patrick Robinson

Harper Collins, 1997, 411 pages, C$35.50 hc, ISBN 0-06-018755-7

Have you ever bitten in a tasty apple, only to discover that it was rotten at the core? How about at book that degenerates as it goes on? Michael Crichton’s Sphere is one of those rotten apples, beginning with a competent SF mystery, continuing with a good underwater thriller, but ending with a deus ex machina too insulting to even contemplate again. (And so they decided it was all a dream! And soon to be a movie!)

With Nimitz Class never approaches the stinky depths at which Sphere sank, it remains that the sum of the novel doesn’t fulfil the promise of the first two hundred pages.

It starts promisingly enough, with a good, ominous description of one of the most formidable war machine ever built: A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. A few characters are efficiently set up… but then the rug is pulled from under out feet: Before the second chapter is over, all the aforementioned characters are vaporized, along with the carrier. A tad over 6,000 deaths. Accidental nuclear explosion, or deliberate attack?

Enters Bill Baldridge, nuclear engineer. His brother Jack was on the carrier when it was destroyed, and Bill doesn’t quite think it was accidental. The hunt for the culprits begins.

As mentioned, the first two hundred pages of Nimitz Class are first-rate military fiction. The plot is developed nicely, and Bill Baldridge is sufficiently different from the usual military hero to be interesting. Author Robinson takes us places we couldn’t otherwise visit: In this case, the British submarine base where the Perisher course is given.

But then the novel goes awry.

Just as Baldridge begins to have a clear idea of who could possibly sink the carrier, the narrative goes on an unexpected direction. This fifty-page detour would have been interesting (and is at times very spectacular) if it would have been integrated in the fabric of the plot. But it’s not, or not enough. Then the novel goes on another tangent. Another exciting scene follows. Then, as things finally seem to pull in together, when our heroes are about to piece up the mystery and find out where the evil terrorist is hiding… They get an anonymous tip, follow the tip and blow up the bad guys.

Very anticlimactic. Add to this an unconvincing romantic thread and the result is a novel that’s more than a little disappointing. I’ve rarely seen an author lose control of a plot so much: Come on, I don’t want a man-to-man fight between the hero and the antagonist, but at least give me a satisfying finish! Cut the SEAL action, crop the channel scene, give the hero a believable romantic interest, but sheesh…

Technically, the prose is okay despite more than a few odd bits of exposition in dialogue. Robinson loves to have his characters talk in multiple paragraphs. (At random: Page 114… same page which contains my favourite excerpt of the book: “Sh*t”, said the President. (after three paragraphs of exposition. The following two paragraphs are more exposition, and then: “J*s*s Chr*st”, said the President. Pop quiz: Is the President under stress?) Okay, so I have low thresholds for favourite exerts.)

Nimitz Class’s faults are even more disappointing in that they torpedo (ha-ha) what could have otherwise been an exceptional military thriller. As it stands now, Nimitz Class is barely worth a library loan. In paperback.

Men In Black (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Men In Black</strong> (1997)

(In theaters, July 1997) In retrospect, disappointment was almost inevitable. Men In Black (the movie) is 1997’s Independence Day: Massively promoted escapist flick, with big special effects, creepy aliens, one-liners and Will Smith. Anticipation for it ranked somewhere between another Beatles concert and the Second Coming. The problem was that the premise was almost too good: Assume an organization checking up on all the (assumed) aliens on Earth. Then treat the subject with a hip, sarcastic attitude and dry cool wit. Then cast Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in the title roles. And bring in ILM for the Special Effects. As I said, expectations can be too high. So, it’s somewhat of a surprise if Men In Black manages to be the movie that Independence Day and Mars Attacks! combined couldn’t be. Part of its success lies in the deadpan satiric take-off of America’s current psychosis (that’s one up on Independence Day) and another part of it lies in a more balanced script (take that, Mars Attacks!). Of course, one can’t deny the incredible charm and charisma of the Jones/Smith duo and the top-notch effects by Rick Baker and ILM. It’s a solid hour and a half of summer entertainment, without the plot holes and stupid character mistakes that have been the latest norm in Hollywood. In short, it’ll make millions. [January 1998: It did.] Peering closer, though, (or seeing it a second time) flaws appear: The script loses energy toward the end. Linda Fiorentino is grossly under-used. The basic story is a clear case of déjà-vu. Like fast food, Men in Black fills but never nourishes. Still, it remains the essence of coolness, summer’97-style. While unsatisfying, and far from completely exploiting all the facets of the exceptional premise, the story at least offers competence, something that has been missing from recent summer offerings. Go see it.

(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2002) Even as Barry Sonnenfeld’s more recent efforts have faltered in lazy, laugh-free big-budget embarrassments, the original Men In Black remains almost as fresh today than when it first came out. A savvy blend of comedy and conspiracy, this original installment zips along quickly, uses the charm of its two lead actors to their fullest potential and is rather nicely shot too. The DVD is a joy to explore as it covers most facets of the production. Alas, the director’s commentary quickly reveals that Sonnenfeld is a moron, which explains his later duds such as Wild Wild West. But if you tune him out and concentrate on the other participants, it’s not as bad. Men In Black is worth another look on DVD, especially if you haven’t seen the film in a while.

The Late Shift (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Late Shift</strong> (1996)

(On TV, July 1997) This made-for-TV movie tells the tale of the events following Johnny Carson’s retirement as the anchor of “The Tonight Show.” In NBC’s wings: Jay Leno and David Letterman, both determined to get Carson’s job. We already know how it turned out, but this movie makes a fascinating 90 minutes of TV business drama. Both Leno and Letterman are likable, and the result is an even-handed show. Fans of either (or both) talk-show hosts will like this one.

Fei ying gai wak [Armour of God 2: Operation Condor] (1991)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Fei ying gai wak</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Armour of God 2: Operation Condor</strong>] (1991)

(In theaters, July 1997) The first Jackie Chan movie I’ve seen… and I’m impressed. It’s not as polished as Hollywood productions, but it’s got tons more of energy: I saw it in a near-deserted theatre (about 40 patrons) and yet, there was a lot more crowd reactions than when I saw The Fifth Element in a packed theatre. Jackie Chan is Erroll Flynn, Charlie Chaplin and Steven Seagal all rolled in one: His goofy good-boy manners make him one of the most charismatic screen personas in recent memory. Forget the sometime incoherent plot: Operation Condor is frequently funny when it counts, and the action is so impressive that it shines and amazes. Not great stuff, but definitely worth the video rental.

Contact (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Contact</strong> (1997)

(In theaters, July 1997) A better movie than the book. A smart summer flick. A motion picture where the science at least tries to be exact. A smart, beautiful, atheist heroine. The good news are that Contact is the purest, hardest science-fiction movie… ever. The bad news is that it’s very good, but not great. As much as I wanted to love the movie, at best I could only really like it. As expected, there was too much of a senseless debate on science versus religion. (With no clear winner according to the movie… but it had to cheat badly to do so: The senate hearing scene at the end is completely boffo. I was busy coming up with hard arguments against the “theory” while Ellie’s character simply followed the screenwriter’s direction to play dumb as not to ruin the movie’s point.) It’s no 2001: A Space Odyssey, but 2001 is the only motion picture it can be compared to. But never mind what the movie does wrong. What’s more important is what the movie does right. An exceptional female protagonist. A blind astronomer. Savvy movie-making. Stunning “invisible” digital effects. A solid grasp of science. Effortless scientific vulgarization. In short, smart (if misguided) SF. Zemeckis has managed the proverbial good science-fiction movie. For this only, I am in awe. Contact is a solid contender for the Oscars. While I would have rather have had seen The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, it is comforting to think that at least, Contact has been made.

Air Force One (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Air Force One</strong> (1997)

(In theaters, July 1997) Harrison Ford is perfect as a butt-kicking president in this good -but not great- thriller. When terrorists take over Air Force One, it’s to the president himself to kill the bad guys and free his family. Will he survive automatic weapons, the White House switchboard, shoddy dialogue and three climaxes? (Cinematic climaxes, not the other kind.) Average performances from the rest of the actors, the directing is fine, the special effects are okay but the editing could have been better, and the film shorter. The script, however, needs an overhaul: One villain’s motivation (or absence thereof) is especially irritating and the president overtly betrays his own ideals in a scene quickly glossed over. Jingoistic flag-waving makes parts of this movie ridiculous to non-US audiences. A worthy video rental, but you might want to rent Executive Decision again for a (slightly) better big-plane thriller.