Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Movie Review: Oblivion

Directed by Joseph Kosinski , Oblivion takes place over 60 years in the future where the Earth was nearly destroyed due to the destruction of the moon and an invasion of an alien race known as Scavs. Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is one of the last drone repairmen on Earth, working with his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) to protect the Hydrorigs and to secure and send Earth's remaining resources to a massive tetrahedral space station - called the Tet - that was humanity's escape vessel. The two expect to leave Earth and join the other survivors at a colony on Saturn's largest moon, Titan.

One day while out on patrol, Jack rescues a woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko) from a drowned, pre-invasion spacecraft. Strangely, Jack recognizes this woman as the one from the weird dreams that he has been having about a time before the invasion. Who is this woman? What does she have to do with Jack's past and is there more to Jack's situation than he believes?

Oblivion, like Kosinski's previous film Tron Legacy, is visually stunning. Almost every scene in the movie is masterfully shot and interesting to look at, keeping you captivated throughout the film's two hour and four minute run-time. In a world where a growing number of films are hopping onto the "shaky cam" bandwagon in hope of adding a pseudo-realistic element to their movies, it's rather nice and refreshing to see such skilled cinematography, beautifully designed sets, and well-chosen locations.

The acting, for the most part, is top-notch as well. Cruise does a fantastic job as Harper, giving us a character who is likable and not your typical, throwaway Sci-Fi/Action protagonist. Riseborough's performance is just as fantastic. The way she plays the character really draws out your sympathy for Victoria and the situation she's in. The only performance that I found particularly weak was Kurylenko's. While she wasn't terrible, she came off a little bland at times.

Now, this movie has come under fire for its story and for being "thinly scripted". Some critics have called it "dumb" and "derivative." However, I think a lot of these critics are either missing the point of the film or are completely off-based. Oblivion might seem derivative to some because it is a well-done homage to the science fiction films of the 1970's. Its stylized look, its high-concept narrative that focuses on the ideas and story instead of the scientific fact, it all feels like a film that would have been made in the 70's.

Secondly, Oblivion's story really isn't that dumb at all. In fact, when you look at the film and go from point to point, it all fits rather neatly together and each twist and turn makes sense to the overall narrative. While there are some weak points in the story, mostly the scenes and elements dealing with Kurylenko's character and the last scene in the movie, the movie's story is well crafted and is a lot better than some of the other films that are popular today.

Oblivion, in my opinion, is a well-crafted homage to the classic science fiction films of the 1970's that is both well-written and entertaining. If you're looking for an interesting, high-concept science fiction movie, I'd recommend give Oblivion a chance.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Book Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, written by Suzanne Collins, takes place in the nation of Panem, a land built on the ruins of North America after an unknown apocalyptic event. The nation consists of the wealthy Capital and the twelve outlying, poorer districts under the Capital's totalitarian control.

As a punishment for a past rebellion in with a 13th district was destroyed, the Capital demands that each district must send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in a brutal fight to the death on live TV known simply as the "Hunger Games."

The story focuses on Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old girl from the coal-rich District 12 who volunteers for the 74th annual Hunger Games in place of her younger sister. In her eyes, this is a just a death sentence. However, Katniss has been close to death before and survival, for her, is second nature. However, if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weight survival against humanity and life against love.

The Hunger Games is an interesting novel. The book, like Ender's Game, is targeted at teenagers. Seeing as a majority of young adult literature nowadays is badly-written supernatural romances, a book about teenagers fighting to the death as entertainment for the Capital and punishment for the Districts is rather refreshing and a welcome change of pace.

While the basic premise has been used before (Battle Royal and The Long Walk both focus on deadly competitions featuring adolescences), The Hunger Games presents its own take on the premise that allows it to stand on its own two feet. The book, like other stories with this premise, focus on what someone is willing to do when placed in a life and death situation and are they willing to sacrifice their humanity to survive? The Hunger Games also presents a fun satire on game shows and reality television, proposing a future where these forms of entertainment have returned to days of the gladiators of Rome. Both ideas are interesting to see and its nice to see them appear in a book meant for a younger audience, showing they too can handle mature topics.

It is also nice to see a female protagonist who isn't overly sexualized and can handle herself in a tough situation. While there were a handful of times where I found Katniss somewhat annoying, she is still a well-realized character who actually feels like someone who could exist in the world that Collins has created and generally acts like a real person would in the situations she is forced into. It's just nice to see a character who is strong and not exploited to make her appeal to a "broader audience."

With all that being said, the book still has problems. The first part of the book has an incredibly slow pace and tends to meander at times. Most of this probably has to due with the fact the book is written in a first person perspective and the only way we can learn more about Panem and the way it works is by Katniss telling us. This tendency to "tell" instead of "show" is one of the problems that tends to come up in first person narratives because we only have one perspective to see the story and the world its set in. Because of this, the perspective character sometimes has to tell us a piece of exposition, which causes the overall narrative to come to a halt for a moment and slow down the pace of the story. However, this problem slowly disappears once the Games actually begin and Katniss only has to explain minor things that have an immediate affect on the current situation.

Even with its pacing issues, The Hunger Games is still a book worth reading. I'd highly recommend it to its targeted teenage audience because it's a book that presents some mature issues and doesn't treat the reader like their idiots, and I'd even recommend it to adults just because its a rather fun read once you get past the rather slow first half.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Book Review: Ender's Game

Written by Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game is set in Earth's future and presents an imperiled humanity who have just barely survived two interstellar conflicts with an insectoid alien species known as the Formics (or "buggers" as they are more commonly referred to). Anticipating a third invasion, an international fleet has established a school to find and train future fleet commanders. The world's most talented children are taken at a very young age and are trained in the arts of war through an increasingly difficult games, the main one undertaken in zero gravity where "armies" of children are pitted against each other.

As the name of the book implies, the story focuses on a young protegee named Andrew "Ender" Wiggin. He is the youngest of three children, Ender is enrolled at Battle School at the age of 6 and is sent through the proverbial meat-grinder, hoping these trials and tribulations would groom him into being the fleet commander that will save humanity from their alien enemies.

Ender's Game is an interesting book. For the longest time, I have been rather hesitant to actually read it because of the novel's author. As many know, Card is a devout Mormon and has used his beliefs to justify his bigotry towards those in the LGBT community. Seeing as I am a member of that community (I'm bi-sexual), you could understand my reservations towards Card's body of work. However, I continued to hear good things about Ender's Game with people telling me I should at least give the book a chance. So, after finding a rather cheap copy at my local book store, I decided to purchase it and give it a read.

After finishing the novel, I found myself rather conflicted somewhat conflicted. Ender's Game, if I had to be completely honest, is one of the best science fiction novels I have read in a long time. While the idea behind the book is rather simple, Card does a good job of investing you in the situation and making you feel and understand Ender's plight. While he does some terrible things, you can understand why he did them and in many ways forgive his transgressions because he was either forced into the situation and had to defend himself or the authority figures in his life hid the actual results of his actions from him. While one could argue Card is just making excuses for those who do horrible things during war times (and many people have done so), I feel that its excusable because Card isn't glorifying these actions and when Ender does find out, he is horrified at what he's done and he react's in a rather realistic way.

The book also deals with a number of ideas that I find rather interesting and thought-provoking. As mentioned above, the book asks if we can excuse or justify certain actions if the final result is for the greater good. Card also delves into communication near the end of the book and the tragedies that can result when two sides misunderstand each other without even realizing it. Both are really interesting topics and I believe Card handles them well.

Now, I come to the part that leaves me conflicted. One of the themes that continued to pop up again and again throughout the book was the idea that one should not follow something blindly just because that thing has a place of authority and people will do strange things for the stuff they believe in. Considering Card uses his own religion as an excuse for his stances against homosexuality, I find the inclusion of the idea somewhat hypocritical and strange. While the message is still a good one and one that people should consider and think about, it was still weird when you think about the author's actions.

While I liked the book (even if it let me conflicted at points), Ender's Game is not a perfect book. There are points in the book where Card introduces a new element, but never really explores it too deeply and move onto a new point rather quickly. Also, the last chapter of the book feels a little cluttered with a lot of things happening right after the other in rapid succession. Finally, there are times where Card switches from a third person perspective to a first person perspective when Ender is thinking about something and it can be rather jarring at first.

With that being said, I still really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to those who like a good science fiction story that isn't too complex, but still gives you enough meat to nibble on and think about. However, if you know about Card's personal beliefs, there are a few times during the book where that knowledge might leave you conflicted. While I could handle it and still enjoy Ender's Game, I know some people can't and I would suggest those skip this book.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Book Review: Summer Knight

Written by Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files is a series of fourteen fantasy/mystery novels starring the private investigator and wizard Harry Dresden. Each novel is told from a first person perspective where Dresden recounts one of his investigations into supernatural disturbances in modern-day Chicago.

Summer Knight is the 4th book in the series and takes place two years after the events in the 1st book Storm Front. After loosing the person closest to him, Dresden just hasn't been himself. He's having trouble paying the rent, alienating his friends, and not taking very good care of himself.

Just when it seems like things couldn't get any worse, the only professional wizard in the phone book is approached by the Winter Queen of Faerie and she has an offer that Harry just can't refuse. She wants him to figure out who murdered the Summer Queen's right hand man, the Summer Knight, and clear the Winter Queen's name. However, Harry should know by now nothing is as it seems, especially when fairies are involved.

To be perfectly honest, Summer Knight left me with rather mixed emotions. On one hand, Butcher's writing remains top-notch. Like the three previous entries in the series, Butcher knows how to bring each character to life and make them pop off the page, even if they are just a secondary character who only shows up once or twice.

Butcher also does a fantastic job at introducing the new details surrounding the Faerie Courts of the Nevernever. Some of my favorite elements in the book were the details about fey culture, the hierarchy of the Summer and Winter Courts, and the political intrigue and power struggles happening between them. As someone who enjoys building and crafting their own fantastical worlds, it's always entertaining for me to read these details about the world.

However, the book isn't flawless. Like the other books in the series so far, there is a large dump of information near the end of the book to make sure everyone knows what is actually happening feels kind of clunky in its execution.

The biggest problem I had with Summer Knight is the somewhat messy nature of the narrative. While on paper the plot makes sense and I was still satisfied with the book overall, I felt the book's plotting could have been a lot tighter.

With that being said, Summer Knight is still an entertaining book in an entertaining series. If you are a fan of The Dresden Files and "Urban Fantasy" stories in general, I suggest giving Summer Knight a read. However, you might be lost if you haven't read the three previous books (Storm Front, Fool Moon, and Grave Peril).