George Of The Jungle (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">George Of The Jungle</strong> (1997)

(On TV, September 1998) I don’t usually watch children movies, and that’s probably why I expected more from this Tarzan knock-off that I got. Granted, some of the comedy is clever (everything absurd and/or involving either the narrator or the native carriers was hilarious, for instance) but the remainder is just unbearably tedious. George Of The Jungle seems like the aftermath of a demented screenwriter’s half-hour of rewrite fun with a below-grade children film script. Too bad they didn’t let him play around with it longer.

The Scariest Place on Earth: Eye to Eye with Hurricanes, David E. Fisher

Random House, 1994, 250 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-679-42775-9

In August 1998, CNN’s web site conducted an online poll about which natural disaster would be the worst to face personally. Upon viewing the results (topped by “Volcanic Eruption”), a co-worker commented that the danger of hurricanes is always severely underestimated.

Which can be understood: From an uninformed point of view, hurricanes are just big storms. What’s a few more centimetres of rain and faster winds? Our buildings can tolerate big storms; what’s the deal with hurricanes? If anything, wouldn’t it be fun to go through a hurricanes, having a good party indoor while it’s raining outside?

The difference is that hurricanes are not just “big storms.” 200 kph winds can drive a two by four plank straight into a tree trunk. The waves whipped up by hurricanes are called “storm surges”: They can rise over five meters and sweep coastal areas, destroying everything in their passages up to several kilometres inland.

David E. Fisher explains all of this and much more in The Scariest Place on Earth. It’s not only a witty, readable account of the mechanism of a hurricane (a far more complex process than what could be expected) but also a collection of historical anecdotes about the terrifying power of hurricanes.

Part of what gives The Scariest Place on Earth its power is the first-hand testimony of Fisher, who lived through Andrew, the 1992 hurricane that devastated a part of South Florida. Fisher lives in Miami; Andrew passed in his neighbourhood. Chapter by chapter, he describes the initial signals, the growing alarm, the hasty preparations, the unwavering disbelief, the terrifying power of the storm itself, and then the devastation afterward. It’s incredible storytelling.

But Fisher is a scientist by formation, and The Scariest Place on Earth has for mission to be the ultimate layman book on hurricanes. For the most part, it succeeds. After a historical overview of our growing understanding of this natural phenomena, he spends a lot of time explaining how and why hurricanes form. It’s time well spent; despite the many interacting factors, you will understand hurricanes after this book. Fisher writes clearly, concisely and not without humour. The chapter explaining the origins of hurricanes (“Out of Nowhere”) is nothing short of a textbook example on how to write scientific non-fiction.

Fisher also discusses the effort that have been made to control hurricanes, and the grim prospects of more powerful hurricanes caused by global warming. In the end, he does manages to convince the reader that truly, there is no scarier place on Earth than in the path of an oncoming hurricane.

It almost seems ungrateful to criticise such a good account, but despite an excellent bibliography and complete notes on sources, The Scariest Place on Earth lacks an index. It’s a serious flaw, especially if you plan to use this book as a reference work.

Despite this significant shortcoming, The Scariest Place on Earth is an effective, poignant popular science book. It’s fascinating, easy reading and has a place on the bookshelf of any serious nonfiction reader. As for me, I no longer confuse hurricanes with “big storms.”

Futuresport (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Futuresport</strong> (1998)

(On TV, September 1998) Standard made-for-TV Science FIction, which is to say garbage! Really, this more-than-obvious futuristic sports drama is enjoyable as long as you don’t expect it to be any good. Unusually well-know performers: Vanessa Williams provides a reason for watching everything, Wesley Snipes had an interesting screen presence and Dean Cain is solid. The multiracial casting was great. Some special effects were nice. (For some reason, I also kind of liked the design of the head-mounted newscameras.) It gets awfully silly when they decided to rescue the love interest, though… Out-of-the-screenwriting-manual plotting, bad dialogue, half-baked concepts not fully explored (Pi ratings, anyone?)… what else did you expect?

The French Connection (1971)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The French Connection</strong> (1971)

(On TV, September 1998) Twenty-five years ago, The French Connection stood its ground as an intense action movie. Today, however, this tale of cops-against-drug-dealers seems tepid. The much-lauded car chase is interesting but not much more. The garage and subway sequences, however, are unexpectedly involving. I didn’t like the abrupt conclusion, which seemed to do its best to deny the audience a satisfying finale. With its bland villains, relatively low stakes, grim conclusion and ambiguous heroes, The French Connection seems more “realistic” than the average police drama but suffers a lot from historical perspective.

Executive Decision (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Executive Decision</strong> (1996)

(Second viewing, On TV, September 1998) I first saw Executive Decision in theatres the first week of its release, and kept a fairly good impression of this tense techno-thriller. I was surprised to see, watching it again on the small screen, that it still held up pretty well upon a second viewing. The terrorist-take-over-plane plot is serviceable, but given a kick in the pants by the screenwriters’ originality. The craftsmanship of the tension is obvious; so is the director’s portrayal of the characters and the superb casting. (Never mind Kurt Russell’s charming everday man: This is Steven Seagal’s best movie, y’know?) The abrupt tone change of the last few minutes, which had annoyed me a lot the first time, didn’t seem to grating on second viewing. Not only one of my favourite movies of 1996, but one of the best thrillers ever made.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb</strong> (1964)

(On TV, September 1998) Unfortunately, due to the movie’s reputation, I already knew every frame of the film even before seeing it. A first belated viewing was curiously familiar and strange. Not a bad movie, but clunky at times–despite what film lovers say. Peter Sellers is pretty good, but the script seems half-poised between intense seriousness and wacky slapstick: Some say this is what makes this film great, but I just found it inconsistent. Still, a great movie-seeing experience, and the finale goes where few other movies have gone before (or since). Dark fun.

Dead Man On Campus (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dead Man On Campus</strong> (1998)

(In theaters, September 1998) Given that this campus comedy was trashed by the critics, I went in with low expectations, and consequently came out of it with a certain satisfaction. The premise is based on a popular urban legend: If your roommate commits suicide, certain colleges consider that your mental anguish will be unbearable, and consequently you’re allowed an automatic A+ for the session. Now, what if you’re smart, but failing in such a way that it’s mathematically impossible to make a passing grade? Dead Man On Campus takes the premise and jogs with it. The two protagonist are sympathetic, the antics are amusing and the conclusion brings a goofy, satisfied smile to everyone. What more can you ask? Just make sure you’re either in college, or recently graduated.

Flying to Valhalla, Charles Pellegrino

Avonova, 1993, 337 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-71881-2

Charles Pellegrino has lived an interesting life. The full-page author blurb informs us that he’s been involved with astronomy, palaeontology, archaeology, the Titanic, the Valkyrie antimatter rocket, the concept of cloning dinosaurs from mosquitoes stuck in amber, composite materials, high-speed global maglevs and a few nuclear devices. Yikes.

With Flying to Valhalla, he now turns his formidable imagination to hard Science-Fiction, complete with a forty-page scientific addendum.

(It’s at this point that the liberal-arts crowd roll their eyes and quietly go away. I’ll be talking to those who will stay.)

Yessir, Flying to Valhalla is pure, undiluted, ultra-hard Science Fiction. No substitutes, no wishy-washy fuzzy concept straight out of media SF, no fancy prose. No fancy characters, and no gripping plot either, but we’ll get to that.

In the same vein than Robert L. Forward and John Cramer, Pellegrino is a working scientist with bursting ideas who finds in SF an ideal medium of expression. So who cares if his characters are cardboard and the plot’s free of any suspense? Pellegrino is constructing the basis of tomorrow’s SF: lesser authors will mine this book for years to come.

What’s in Flying to Valhalla? A lot of stuff.

The Chronology begins with “First Contact: 33,552,442 B.C.” and ends with “Effective end of Earth: A.D. 2076”. The book continues with Pellegrino, Powel and Asimov’s Three Laws of Alien Behaviour:

  1. Their survival will be more important that our survival,
  2. Wimps don’t become top dog and
  3. They will assume that the first two laws apply to us.

No Star Trek goody-humanist doctrine, here. You already want to read the novel? Good, because this stuff is still all in the introduction.

Before the novel’s over, you’ll read about antimatter rockets, space disasters, alien civilizations, theories of cosmogony, near-c insanity (or lucidity), relativistic bombs, galactic predators, electronic civilizations, sun-driven antimatter factories, lunar colonization and so much more!

It’s redundant to say that Flying to Valhalla is a novel of ideas. It’s also redundant to say that hard-SF fans will devour it with glee while everyone else will look on in incomprehension. So let’s do the only decent thing and point out that if you’re looking for good hard-SF, Flying to Valhalla, and Pellegrino, are good buys.

(The most fascinating thing about Flying to Valhalla is the concept of relativistic bombs. Accelerate relatively small objects to near-lightspeed velocities and let them smash in something -say, a planet- you want destroyed. There is almost no warning due to the near-c speed, and the impact is such that destruction is total. There is no real theoretical obstacle to this: just do the math. Now imagine that other civilisations in the galaxy that have the power required to send these relativistic bombs.

This is where hard-SF shines: It anticipates a problem that has very real foundations years -possibly *centuries*- before everyone else. Flying to Valhalla also instill a deliciously real sense of paranoia: What if our TV signals are, at this very moment, reaching a civilization that doesn’t want any competitor…?

Sweet dreams.)

Cube (1997)

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

(In theaters, September 1998) The traditional cliché about cheap (or Canadian, which this movie is) Science-Fiction is that due to budget restrictions, you usually end up with a few actors, fewer sets and even fewer special effects. Cube ends up exemplifying this by having seven actors, less that two sets and a Very Big Light. (It was shot for $300,000 in twenty days in a Toronto warehouse) Even more surprising, it almost works. The script is pretty bad (ordinary dialogue, stock characters do stupid things for unknown reasons, lousy logic, unlikely coincidences, etc…) but the film is well-done, and starts off with an intriguing premise. Unfortunately, it belongs to the dark-and-dreary school of pseudo-artistic SF, so don’t expect to be uplifted by this. Not entirely unpleasant, no, but far from being very good. SpoilerAvoidSpoiler: I really hate it when the idiot survives and the only sympathetic characters in the cast all die just as the Happy Ending is dangled in front of our nose. “and then they all die” is not artistically superior to a happy ending. Cripes.

Carnosaur (1993)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Carnosaur</strong> (1993)

(On TV, September 1998) Above-average B-movie if it wasn’t for the ending, which is one incredible downer. The paranoid view of government agencies doesn’t help either. Still, if the science is complete nonsense, the themes explored in Carnosaur are unusually chilling. The means, however, aren’t very convincing. To its credit, Carnosaur goes much further beyond the usual “monster-eats-people” film. Part of it may be because it’s adapted from a novel. Indifferent performances, save for the mad scientist and the Clint Howard semi-cameo. Not really recommended, since in my view, good B-Movies let the lead couple survive. Trivia: The mad scientist is played by Diane Ladd, who’s the real-life mother of Laura Dern… who also played the scientist in 1993’s other dino-flick Jurassic Park!

American Graffiti (1973)

<strong class="MovieTitle">American Graffiti</strong> (1973)

(On TV, September 1998) Of mainly historical interest, American Graffiti is false nostalgia, presenting an idealized view of the early sixties. Seen from 1998, the nostalgia appears more pitiful than justified. Still, it has its moment, especially near the end. (If nothing else, the soundtrack is superb, bringing together many hits from that period.) Otherwise, watch it to see younger versions of Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford and director Ron Howard in a starring role. Most importantly; American Graffiti was George Lucas’ second movie, just before Star Wars. THX-1138‘s grimness is on the way out, and the willingness to be accessible is in…

Abraxas, Guardian Of The Universe (1990)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Abraxas, Guardian Of The Universe</strong> (1990)

(On TV, September 1998) Anyone who claims that “Spawn was the worst movie ever!” or that “All summer blockbusters suck!” should be forced to watch this atrocity and finally learn the true meaning of a bad movie. Abraxas starts off with a monologue containing the following gem “We Guardians renew our vows every hundred years. I have renewed mine ninety times. That’s right: I am nearly ten thousand year old.” The following scenes show burly guys with dinky guns running around in a forest while cheap-looking explosions appear beside them (we’re supposed to figure out that the dinky guns cause the explosions, but it’s a testimony to the ultra-cheap special effects that we’re not convinced). The bad Guardian then impregnates a girl with a wave of his magic hand (don’t ask) and three minutes later the girl gives birth to a baby, in the snow in the middle of the forest. She then picks up the baby and goes home, where she’s thrown out by her parents. Folks, the movie doesn’t get any better than this afterward. Subsequent howlers include the line “Parsecs aren’t appropriate Earth Time Units!” and a mild-mannered policeman pulling an Uzi from under his jacket and firing at the alien. (The alien’s comment? “Interesting, but inefficient”.) It’s a movie so bad it’s bad. James Belushi has a thirty-second cameo as a school director (Belushi: “Your child is strange. We want him to go away. Bullies are picking up on him.” Mother: “Have you thought about telling them to stop beating my child?” Belushi: “Uh, no.”) Don’t bother even to look at it; this review contains all the fun parts. I don’t plan on ever looking at this again, except on MST3K.

Antarctica, Kim Stanley Robinson

Bantam, 1998, 511 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-10063-7

Kim Stanley Robinson has done it again.

If you loved the Mars trilogy, you will like Antarctica. If you thought Robinson paid too much attention to detail in his trilogy, you will feel the same way with Antarctica. If you liked the political theory in all Mars books, there more of it in Antarctica. If you like his newly-matured stylistic techniques exhibited in the martian trilogy, rest assured that he’s doing much of the same thing here. In short, Antarctica is one of the most obvious follow-up possible to the Mars trilogy. Fans as well as non-fans will find what they expect here.

Antarctica is a cold, vast, lonely place. One of this planet’s last frontiers (it was only explored at the beginning of this century), it remains, even today, quite mysterious. Far from being a vast plain of eternal ice, Antarctica proves itself a varied, fascinating continent.

In his latest novel, Kim Stanley Robinson tells us about the Antarctica. It’s a book best compared to lengthy travelogues written by explorers: Not much of a plot, but a wealth of details.

In 1995, Robinson went to Antarctica courtesy of the National Science Foundation, as part of the U.S. Antarctic Program’s Artists and Writer’s Programs. It obviously shows. Whatever tax dollars were spent in order for Mr. Robinson to spend some time down under, they were well-invested. The resulting book is a solid testimony of the beauty of the continent.

Even though it’s marketed under the mainstream Bantam logo (not the Bantam Spectra SF imprint), Antarctica is straight science-fiction. Not only because it takes place sometime in the early twenty-first century but mostly because it espouses and deals with the themes dearest to SF: the nature of scientific change, the effect of technology on humans and the environment. It’s as if Robinson applies the talent he has sharpened in SF to a problem that’s almost contemporary. The result is awe-inspiring.

Antarctica contains some technological gadgets, some sociological innovations but many digressions about the history of Antarctica and the human presence on this decidedly difficult continent. Robinson effectively creates and sustain a mystique about Antarctica through historical digressions and carefully selected vignettes. We’re not there, but we get the sights without the frostbite.

Characters are well-handled. Although the usual “visitor” character is kept suitably under-developed (a must if he is to be the reader’s fictional surrogate), the two other main protagonist are well-sketched, and elicit our sympathy. The assortment of secondary characters is also developed with great care. There are no outright villains, Antarctica being formidable enough as opponent.

The fiction content of the novel is less impressive. The story doesn’t revv up until half the book has passed, and then mostly resolves itself in barely more than 150 pages, leaving characters around for almost another hundred pages. This is where fans and non-fans of Robinson will diverge opinions: Fans simply don’t care because they like what they’re reading anyway while non fans won’t care because, effectively, they don’t care. Caveat lector, or so to speak.

Antarctica is a good follow-up to the Mars trilogy. Of exceptionally worthy docu-fictive value, it will please those who like this kind of stuff. Robinson really makes Antarctica come alive in his novel. Well-written if thin plot-wise, it’s nevertheless one dense, satisfying read. Try not to miss it.