Monthly Archives: May 2000

Big Momma’s House (2000)

(In theaters, May 2000) I have seldom liked Martin Lawrence’s brand of “comedy” and he miserably fails once again in Big Momma’s House, a totally middle-of-the-road film that seems to exist simply because a vast industry has to turn out films, no matter what. The script is on autopilot, summoning a romance out of no further common affinities but “she’s hot” and “he’s nice”, comedy sequences made “funnier” by the sight of a fat protagonist and saccharine moments so blatantly manipulative that they end up alienating intelligent viewers rather than bringing them closer to the film. Nothing special here, folks. I didn’t pay for my ticket, and I really hope you won’t either.

The Hacker Crackdown, Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, 1992, 316 pages, C$7.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-56370-X

(Available online at http://www.lysator.liu.se/etexts/hacker/)

Bruce Sterling has acquired, in the science-fiction community, an enviable reputation as one of the smartest, most visionary representative of the genre. Indeed, in the turbulent nineties, Sterling has shown himself capable of adapting to the new wave of technology that almost made Science-Fiction obsolete. A string of excellent books (Heavy Weather, Globalhead, Holy Fire, Distraction, A Good Old-fashioned Future) have cemented his reputation as one of the current masters of the genre.

Few SF observers would have been as bold as to claim such an honor for Sterling at the end of the eighties. Sure, Schismatrix was a boffo space-opera, and Islands on the Net showed promise, but apart from a few other short stories in Crystal Express, the rest of Sterling’s fiction output was disappointing, to say the least. Who remembers Involution Ocean? Or The Artificial Kid? If anything, Sterling was showing more promise as a competent critic (Cheap Truth) and anthologist (Mirrorshades) than a fiction author.

In the early nineties, however, something happened. In 1990, a string of events rocked the computer underground. A friend of Sterling, Steve Jackson, saw federal agents confiscate a good part of his small gaming company’s assets under the pretext that he was writing a manual for computer pirates. Sterling didn’t simply get mad; he seeked the truth behind the event. The Hacker Crackdown is a journalistic account of the 1990 skirmishes between the telephone companies, the hackers, the police and the civil libertarians.

The book is divided in four parts. In the first, Sterling begins by explaining the roots of cyberspace, going back as far as the first telephone networks. In one of the best passages of the book, he explains how the telephone system went from a simple cable strung between Alexander Graham Bell’s phone and Watson’s receiver to the current unimaginably complex packet-switching network. Then he traces the effects of a simple bug which shut-down AT&T’s telephone network in January 1990.

He then takes us deeper underground, describing the subculture of the computer hackers that existed in 1990. He shows how paranoia, caused by the AT&T shutdown, percolated in a “need for action” that led police officers to raid private citizen’s house and to grab their computers—and in many cases, much more than their computers.

In the book’s third quarter, he goes from one side to the other and ends up talking about the police forces and how they’re trying to update their mandate in the information age. He discusses how most computer security outfits were severely under-funded in the early nineties. Sterling takes us at a computer-security conference, and does some hacking of his own.

Finally, he ends up explaining the most enduring legacy of the 1990 events; the electronic rights interest group that have been formed. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is described, along with a variety of speculations on the future of “law and disorder on the electronic frontier”.

How important were the 1990 events? Well, as Sterling puts it, any policeman can go to a group of scruffy-looking hoodlums hanging in front of a store and ask them to leave, or else. Few groups of hoodlums would have the presence of mind to go phone up a lawyer to protest police repression of their constitutional right of free assembly. That’s what happened in 1990; for ill-defined reasons, government kicked over the electronic anthill, and that precipitated the formation of electronic rights interest groups, whose influence continues to grow in today’s information age.

And you couldn’t find a better writer for the job than Bruce Sterling. His writing is clear, incisive and often funny. Even though he is clearly outraged at the police abuse, he gives fair consideration to everyone’s viewpoint, and the result is a superb book that illuminates computer security like few other books before. Strongly recommended. It is still, and will remain relevant. Parallels with current cases involving entertainment cartels versus internet startups (Napster, MP3.com, 2600.com…) under the guise of “piracy” when really it’s all about “consumer control” are chilling, to say the best.  Except that this time, civil-rights groups aren’t facing an opponent bound by the constitution… and they can’t compete with their dollar-fuelled lobbyists.

But don’t take my word for it; go check out the electronic version at http://www.lysator.liu.se/etexts/hacker/

Battlefield Earth (2000)

(In theaters, May 2000) Everything you have heard about this film is true. It is one of the worst films ever. It is a massive monument to the bloated self-esteem of John Travolta. It is unimaginably stupid. It is one of the cheapest-looking big-budget film in recent memory. It is not worth your money. It is not bad enough to be good, but it is bad enough to be unpleasant. It is incompetently directed. It deserved to flop even more badly than it actually did. It is also, hopefully, a well-deserved slap in the face to the “memory” of one of the most gifted con artist of the twentieth century, L. Ron Hubbard. Stay away. Stay far, far away.

The Avengers (1998)

(On VHS, May 2000) Take your usual James Bond template. Insert surrealism. Mix Well. Insert more surrealism. Mix even harder. Never mind if crucial pieces fly outside the bowl as you stir. That’s The Avengers for you; a film that will drive you crazy if you’re not ready for its weirdness and still expect something coherent. Essential parts of the plot were cut in the editing room, leading to big Huh?s such as “how now, brown cow” and a choppy narrative. But amusing images pop up here and there -the teddy bear meeting!-, raising the overall level of the film to something akin to guilty enjoyment. It doesn’t help, after the oddball nature of the rest of the film, if the conclusion is completely ordinary in spy-adventure terms. Still, The Avengers is worth a look, if not a thought.

The Second Arrival aka Arrival II (1998)

(On VHS, May 2000) A cheap sequel of the original David Twohy film, minus everyone in the original film. (Special effects artists reportedly had to work from videotapes of the first film.) It looks cheap and feels even cheaper, explicitly taking place in Canada and featuring very few visual goodies. Despite all of the above, the film does an adequate job at preserving the themes of the first volume. Still, I would have rather see them resolve the issue here rather than letting the door open wide for further sequels.

28 Days (2000)

(In theaters, May 2000) A writer is sent to a rehab clinic. Now that’s a premise that can either be milked for maximum pathos or maximum mirth. 28 Days ends up trying both and ending up with neither. Granted, the first tip-off that this is going to be safely middle-of-the-road tripe comes right before the title, when you see that Sandra Bullock is headlining the film. After that, you can expect all the usual clichés: The hunky love interest. The escape attempt. The suicidal roommate. The wacky gay guy. Granted, this is all far more entertaining that I was expecting, but it still doesn’t make of this film anything worth remembering. And what’s up with the final horse thing? Couldn’t that be any more convenient?

The Gemini Man, Richard Steinberg

Bantam, 1998, 374 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58016-7

I picked up this book by mistake.

I had been reading movie-rumor sites, and a particular project had caught my interest. Harrison Ford (or Mel Gibson, or Sean Connery) was supposed to be attached to star in THE GEMINI MAN, a thriller about a government operative being tracked down by… a younger clone of himself. Very interesting, especially given that a digital recreation of the lead actor (built from footage taken from movies released twenty years ago) would be used to re-create the younger version of the character.

So I found myself at a used-book sale with a dirt-cheap copy of Richard Steinberg’s THE GEMINI MAN in my hands. A quick glance at the back cover blurb seemed to match my recollection of the film project: “He was trained to be our deadliest weapon. Now he’s our worst nightmare.” Sounded about right.

Certainly, the first chapter of The Gemini Man is one of the best thriller opening I’ve read in a long, long time. Deep in Siberia, an American officer is sent to a concentration camp in order to bring back another American operative. The Russians put up some resistance, muttering something about freeing the devil and how, even under maximal security, the prisoner has already killed half a dozen guards. The terrified Russians add that his last escape attempt resulted in the death of a civilian family. The writing is brisk, clear and terrifying as we meet special operative Brian Newman, as if Hannibal Lecter had ended up as an US secret agent. A lot of small ominous details add up to promise a gripping novel.

The rest of the book never matches this promise. In short order, our female protagonist is introduced; a psychologist tasked with interviewing Newman to decide if he’s fit to re-integrate civilian life. That is, if he can stop killing small birds and stray cats. Hmmm… what do you think?

It gradually becomes apparent that this isn’t the story for which Ford, Gibson or Connery would have agreed to star. It takes a bit longer to realize that this is a completely ludicrous novel.

It’s obvious from the start, however, that super-agent Brian Newman, he of murderous dispositions and terrifying abilities, is positioned as an anti-hero of Lecteresque appeal. He seems consciously engineered by author Steinberg as the perfect dangerous man, charming yet ruthlessly amoral, a genius-level sociopath with no remorse. Needless to say, we’ve seen this before, from Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley to Harris’ Lector, passing by the real-life Ted Bundy. As a reader, I tend to be annoyed by this quasi-glorification of criminal behavior. It seems all the most manipulative (“Oooh, a sexily dangerous man! My primal urges are taking over!”) when considering the statistically documented dimness of most criminals.

It gets worse, because as the novel unfolds, Steinberg conjures up some neurological/psychological claptrap to “prove” that Brian Newsman isn’t simply a nut, a wacko or a government-trained mad dog, but rather a newly-evolved species of Humankind, Homo Sapiens Saevus or Homo Crudelis. Brain of a new man. Brian Newman. Ooh, subtle stuff.

I’m used to seeing thrillers come up with whoopers, but that pretty much took the cake. Once the other characters start agreeing gravely and coming out of the woodwork as further examples of this new species, it’s only a small step to suppose that Steinberg belongs to the NRA and that he thinks that the Nazi concept of eugenics was a pretty good idea. Or maybe not, but at the very least he needs to work some more on suspending his readers’ disbelief. (In any case, he’s not learning very quickly; paging through his second novel in bookstores, it quickly became obvious that this was a novel where the protagonist discovers that -egawd!- the American government secretly knows about aliens! How so very original!)

Of course, once super-badass-anti-hero is established as a new species of man, it doesn’t take a genius to see where the novel is going. It goes there without too many surprises. Yawn.

Too bad, because The Gemini Man had the kernel, and the opening chapter, of a great thriller. Start of a series? Blah.