Coming to Television: Wayward Pines by Blake Crouch

The pilot episode of Wayward Pines was shown at San Diego Comic Con this year by none other than M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Village, Signs). Based on i09’s review of the episode, I gather that it got mixed reviews. The star-studded cast includes Matt Dillon, Terrance Howard, Juliette Lewis, Shannyn Sossamon, and a few other actors that appeared familiar. Despite it’s season one filming being complete, the series is slated for a mid-season (winter) start.

Why do I mention the new show? Well, four days ago I never had heard of the trilogy’s author, Blake Crouch. Then while trapped in a Tokyo hotel room with two toddlers sleeping, I came across the first book, Pines, while browsing Amazon on my iPad. I downloaded the book and four days later I had not read just one, but all three books in the trilogy.

0378 Crouch_Thicker Than Blood_2Blake Crouch admits the story’s inspiration comes from Twin Peaks, but I found the first book to be more reminiscent of Hugh Howey’s Wool. Secret Service officer, Ethan Burke, goes to a small town in Idaho to investigate the disappearance of two other officers. He is in an accident and wakes up in Wayward Pines with little memory about who he is.

The townspeople appear nice at first, but Ethan quickly realizes that things just don’t seem right. Worse yet, he can’t get in contact with his wife or the agency. He can’t even find his way out of the city.

Without spoiling any more of the novel, I will mention that like Wool, Pines is a novel about discovering reality. Science fiction elements are present, but slight, and by the end of the novel, the reader will completely understand the circumstances that Ethan finds himself in. I am not sure if it is an homage, but Blake even mentions in the novel revealing the secrets of Wayward Pines is like lifting the wool from people’s eyes.

Pines 2By the start of the second book, the story shifts from a book of discovery to a book of sociology. It is not a zombie book, but I would compare both the second and third books to The Walking Dead. What makes The Walking Dead the most popular television drama is not zombies, but the social interactions that take place in an isolated society. The enemy is more often the people themselves than the zombies trying to infiltrate their town.

The same is true with Wayward Pines. There is an interesting mix of people and relationships with different levels of knowledge about what the town really is. Ethan finds himself thrust in the middle of internal and external conflicts as he continues to dig deeper into the mysteries of the town. He also begins to learn how and why he got there was not just an accident, but a planned event.

As I mentioned, I plowed through the series in four days. I think this shows how readable the books are. They are page turners and also short in length. I found the premise plausible and the action was almost non-stop. The characters were not as developed as they could have been and I think this is a good opportunity for the television series to improve upon. Also, there is some cheesy dialog by the townspeople that withdrew me from the narrative.

Pines 3Despite these quibbles, I found the trilogy highly entertaining. It nicely blends the strange-world hook of Wool, the sociology of The Walking Dead, and the small town mechanics of Twin Peaks. Even if some of the relationships and interactions are formulaic, the premise gives a storyline that has great potential for being a television hit. Knowing the secrets of the town and story do not diminish from the intrigue of the community and I will plan on giving this show a shot this winter. I also plan on checking out some of Blake Crouch’s other novels to see what other worlds and stories he has developed.

If you want a thrilling popcorn read, Wayward Pines is a great place to start. There is lots of action with just enough science fiction to whet the appetite of genre fans while not alienating those who like their reality kept in check.

Movie Review: Her

her

In a not-too-distant future, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) suffers from loneliness. He is separated from his wife and resorts to phone sex, internet porn, and video games to fill the vast hole that is left in his heart. Fortunately, being in touch with his emotions is advantageous for a man who works at a letter-writing-for-hire company, dictating poetic missives for customers in need.

As his depression and his inability to connect with women increases, he finds comfort in an AI-driven operating system who calls herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). From the get go, Samantha sounds remarkably human, with an emotional and intellectual IQ far surpassing her mortal counterparts.

Theodore shares his experiences with his confidant, Amy (Amy Adams), even divulging that he has developed an intimate relationship with Samantha. Can a man and AI truly be in love or is this just another diversion for Theodore to avoid real love?

Writer and director Spike Jonze has delivered another successful , albeit quirky movie, that has received many positive reviews. It is difficult to classify the film, as it blends elements of romance, comedy, science fiction, and dialog-heavy drama. Her is a movie about how technology has enslaved humanity, taking away our ability to connect with others on an interpersonal level. Theodore’s sense of loss and loneliness is muted by the technology around him and only through situations where he is forced to connect with humans is his pathetic state made apparent. It is also a movie about love and what the meaning of love actually is.

As a fan of science fiction, I found the world to be an interesting study. There are two options in Hollywood for the future:

  1. A cyberpunk setting that blends dark tones, dilapidated buildings, and Japanese style
  2. A utopian setting that blends brightness, cleanliness, and post-modern style

Her falls into the latter category, with not a wad of paper on the ground, perfectly clean rooms, and vast technology that is available to everyone. In addition to post-modern decor, the fashion has gone downhill, with shirts being tucked into high-rise wool pants being the latest style.

Her is just over two hours long and it feels like it. Much of the movie is focused on the dialog between Theodore and Sam and while it is captivating, it makes for a slow-moving movie. The dialog is witty and there are a few moments of laugh-out-loud humor that give the movie character. There is also some language and sexual humor that may be uncomfortable for some.

Even though the technology in the movie was part of the allure for me, it is so far disconnected from science and plausibility that it is more of a prop or plot device than a science fiction extrapolation of our society. Regardless, the premise leaves many questions to ask and I found myself contemplating the meaning of life while Theodore interacted with his virtual lover.

Overall, I found this movie to be a fresh change of pace and am very glad I saw it. It is quirky, but grounded in the highest level of human emotion, pleasing viewers from diverse walks of life. For those looking for a change of pace, Her is definitely worth your while. I’m just not sure what I fear more — AI’s taking over the world or pants being buttoned above the belly button.

The Man of Steel’s Identity Crisis

man of steel

Warning: this review contains spoilers

Superman’s iconic “S” is one of the most recognizable symbols in pop culture. For decades, we have known it to stand for Superman, but in the new Man of Steel movie, we learn that it is not an English letter, but a Kryptonian symbol of hope. While this detail may seem trivial, or perhaps a novelty, it exemplifies the identity crisis that the Man of Steel suffers throughout the film.

Christopher Nolan, who directed the latest Dark Knight trilogy, comes back in The Man of Steel as a producer and co-writer. With suspicions of this movie setting up a future Justice League movie (in a similar fashion to Marvel’s The Avengers), I instantly became nervous how Superman’s character would be handled. The Dark Knight finds its roots primarily in Frank Miller’s pivotal comic, The Dark Knight Returns. (more…)

The Amazing Spider-Man and the Sci Fi Reboot

I remember when I heard that Christopher Nolan would be directing Batman Begins. One of his previous movies, Memento, was dark and brilliant, so one can understand that my hopes were high for the reboot of the Batman series.

I was quite satisfied with the first movie in the trilogy, but then Nolan went out and directed a sequel, The Dark Knight, which remains my favorite superhero movie to this day. I am eagerly awaiting The Dark Knight Rises later in the month.

But I think that Nolan’s brilliant reboot is an exception to the rule. The previous Batman films were corny, much like the original film, and really lost my attention after Batman (1989) starring Michael Keaton. What Nolan had to offer was a completely different take on the series, portraying the darker side of Batman as seen in recent comics.

So that brings me to The Amazing Spider-Man. This film was directed by Marc Webb, whose feature-length directorial debut was (500) Days of Summer.  Like Memento, this film found its success by traveling the film festival circuit. But unlike Memento, (500) Days of Summer is a quirky comedy-drama.

As I sat down last night to watch The Amazing Spider-Man, I had somewhat low expectations. I knew that I wasn’t being introduced to a Spider-Man equivalent of the Dark Knight and I was just hoping that the film would have something new to offer. To start out, I was pleased with the casting. Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker) and Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy) achieve much better chemistry on screen than Toby Maguire and Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane Watson) ever did. Plus, the Peter Parker in the reboot is still an awkward and impulsive teenager without having the goofiness that Maguire brought to the role.

Really, there is not much to complain about with the new film. If it weren’t for the fact that a trilogy was just released, I would probably be raving about it right now. But there is really nothing new brought to the table. Spider-Man’s villain, the Lizard, is not worthy of special recognition. The origin story also takes a long time to unfold and is basically another retelling of a boy getting bit by a radioactive spider.

So what are we to think of all of these reboots? I just saw the preview for the new Total Recall movie, which is a remake of the Swarzenegger movie (not Philip K Dick’s short story). Christopher Nolan’s next project is Man of Steel, a Superman reboot. Now that most of the popular comic book characters have been made into films, Hollywood may be forced to develop their own scripts.

Which leads us to Prometheus, a film I finally managed to see earlier in the week. It wasn’t as bad as critics pan it to be, but the characters were quite shallow and there really was no good plot resolution. Until this week, I had been lamenting the fact that as a father of twin toddlers, I was not able to make it to the movies anymore. The Amazing Spider-Man was definitely worth the trip and I am even more eager to see the new Batman and Borne movies coming out in the next month. Otherwise, generally speaking, I’m not missing much.

Thoughts on A Game of Thrones (Season 2)

It has been a few years since I have read A Clash of Kings, book two of George R.R. Martin’s brilliant series. The second season of HBO’s adaptation follows the book rather closely and while the magnitude of Martin’s world has been tamed, the series has delivered. Unlike the books, the Starks’ direwolves play but a passing role and battles fought with armies of horses are now combating on foot. But even with budget limitations, the story is delivered in a real and powerful way.

It is refreshing to see speculative fiction receiving such a big stage with this series. Horror has found moderate success and one cannot ignore the popularity of Star Trek and Stargate. But I cannot think of any epic fantasy series receiving such acclaim. On the coattails of Rome and The Tudors, A Game of Thrones starts off as a period piece. Inspired by Wars of the Roses, Martin’s series at first glance appears to be mostly set in real life, albeit a completely fictional locale.

The second season is where the fantastical element of Martin’s series really starts to take off. Daenerys Targaryen travels through the barren desert to the trading city of Qarth with her three dragons and encounters dark magic in the House of the Undying. Midway through the second season, a dark shadow commits the assassination of a prominent figure. While would-be kings battle for the throne, an army of undead White Walkers approaches the wall of the north.

The brilliance in Martin’s series lies in the characters. There is no good and evil — there are just people who do good and evil things. Like real life, each character is flawed in their own way. My favorite character, Tyrion, is played flawlessly by Peter Dinklage. It is a difficult task, as Tyrion is a complex character with a sense of cunning, responsibility, and debauchery. But don’t let his indulgences or small stature fool you — he can command armies and convince kings to follow his methods.

Jack Gleeson (who plays King Joffrey) is effective in making me hate his brutal, cowardly character; Emilia Clarke (Daenerys) gets me to the edge of my seat with her bold courage in the face of danger; and Lena Headey (Queen Regent Cersei) is cold, but composed in her selfish and morally ambiguous pursuits.

What HBO’s series has done is given me the desire to read the entire series again from the beginning, but as Martin fans know, this is a game of patience. It has taken fifteen years for the first five volumes to come out and we can only hope he can write the last two books before HBO catches up with him (that gives him about four years to get the last two out). The first three books are by far the greatest in the series, but there is enough excitement still to be unraveled that I am hopeful of a complete and satisfying conclusion.