Final Space & Dragon Prince

In fits and spurts, I’ve watched both Netflix series.  They only have 1 season, and they are relatively short episodes at 20 and 30 mins each.  They are both worth the watch, but for different reasons.

Final Space

This is more like 2 series in one, and that really swaps over in episode 7.  The first part is a near absurdist buddy comedy, with what amounts to verbal diarrhea.  The second part is more of a mix between Voltron and Cthulhu.

Where is lacks in consistency, it makes up for in sheer drive.  Gary Goodspeed is half bumbling idiot, half hero… and when he does go idiot, he goes full bore.  He ends up befriending some interesting folk along the way; a time travelling captain (both versions), a cat and his son, a demented robot, a lisping nutjob, and an army of cloned robots.

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The typical joke

Where the first part is more US comedy fare, and simple at that, it’s when it tries its hand at larger things that the story really splits off and has trouble holding on.  The overall arc that a bad guy is trying to open Final Space is passable, but the reasons why make little sense.  The ability to prevent it make little sense either, as it feels more like a McGuffin chase than much else.  It doesn’t take itself seriously, as much as it tries to make emotions come to the font.  I mean, there’s only so many times you can watch Gary’s dad die before it just doesn’t have any real resonance.

Side note – Fry from Futurama was is a good comparison in this.  Futurama earned those heart felt episodes, because you saw the characters develop.  Find me someone who didn’t have a tear at Jurassic Bark and I’ll show you someone who’s dead inside.

That said, the overall arc is well framed with a 1 minute countdown at the start of each episode which foreshadows the final one.  Or I guess 1-9 are each flashbacks.  Pick your poison.  It has solid pacing, and that to me is worth more than gold.  Other Netflix series all seem to want to pad an hour with nothing.  Final Space takes the 20 minutes, and fills it to the brim with forward movement.

Curious as to how season 2 will take this.  Either the galactic storyboard that was alluded, or a more episodic approach.

Dragon Prince

Lead by the same guy who brought Avatar (animated) to the screen, Dragon Prince is the story of, well, a Dragon Prince.

The backstory lasts a couple minutes, and generally revolves around nature vs man conflict.  Humans found a new type of magic, that steals life force from the other natural magic sources.  A war breaks out.  The king of dragons (feel I should capitalize that…) defends the border between humans and elves (at least 6 kinds of elves).  Humans manage to kill him, and destroy his only egg.. the aforementioned prince

Elves want revenge, plot a coup to take out the human king and prince… things go wrong.  Seems the egg wasn’t destroyed, but taken.  Who knew?

The elf assassin sees that this would stop the war, and leaves with the prince and the prince-in-law (that will be an interesting backstory I’m sure), and shenanigans occur.  Still the 3 character party + animal companion from Avatar, just no demi-god in the ranks.  Each character has strengths and flaws, hidden secrets.  The team dynamic works well, and it doesn’t take long for it to seem more like a family than a party.

The humans though… that’s a rough bit.  The king had an advisor who is an expert in the evil magic.  He appears to be his best friend… and when that friend proposes using said magic to protect the king, the king decides to go all righteous.  Where was that righteousness for the years where he was the advisor?  The king maybe dies?  I don’t know.  Then the advisor goes full evil mode for the rest of the series.

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My favorite human character.

The advisor has 2 kids, a not-too-bright knight and a smart-ass mage.  They are tasked by the advisor to kill the princes and take the egg back.  They apparently have zero moral struggles with this… but then again there’s maybe 5 minutes total across all episodes between the two.

The Dragon Prince deals with theme of loss and growth.  All good stories do.  There are hints of a much larger world, and this feels just like the initial journey of a grand adventure.  That final shot really isn’t a cliffhanger as much as an “ok, time for the real stuff to start” message from the writers.  It follows the book format of avatar, with a potential of 7 seasons of episodes (if 1 per source of magic).  Avatar was 61 episodes, so it’s pretty close.

The head team is open to audience feedback too, which is a mixed bag of risk, but certainly a novel *cough* way to pick a direction.  Should be an interesting journey.

Dark – Solid SciFi

  • Do you like suspense?
  • Do you like sci-fi?
  • Do you like to see people tick when under a lot of stress?
  • Do you like coherent plots?
  • Do you like German film?

Then I have the series for you!

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10 x 1hour episodes

Good sci-fi is the depiction of people coping with life, and the science portion is a tool to help the story go forward.  Dark does a pretty good job with this.

It’s the story of a mysterious town (well more like cave) and how a family/town reacts when kids go missing.  It actually takes a while for that missing part to really get going, as it has a lot of exposure to the very large cast.  By the 3rd episode, you’re given 95% of the bits required to see the entire story.  It may not be obvious when you see something, but in hindsight the story is well structured.

I don’t want to go too much into the plot as that spoils a lot of the fun.  What I can say is that the story is consistent, and the characters actions have impacts.  Given the main sci-fi mechanism used in this story, that had to be in place.

Kids are generally taboo in sci-fi, in that they are pretty much invincible.  Teens, those are fair game.  That 5-10 range… that’s usually the domain of drama, not sci-fi.  That part was both refreshing, and disturbing, since I have not been de-sensitized to it.

There are some tough scenes to watch play out.  Even the people who appear to be evil, are actually trying to make things go forward for the greater good.  Except one guy – he’s a nutter.  Mind you even by the end of the series I still had a lot of questions around him.

The sci-fi part is still well done, and not the enemy of the series.  This is in contrast to Stranger Things 2.  In the first one, the bad guys opened up the upside down.  In the second season, the upside down was the bad guys.  It may seem minor, but that split away from human vs human makes the plot take a different path.  Dark manages to stick to the people factor all the way through.

In the technical realm, the series is quite, you know, dark.  Quite a few night scenes, very little color.  It feels almost dystopian, but then again few people ever seem to smile.  The shots are generally well done, if simple.  There’s next to no CGI.  The music is heavy on the strings, a bit like an orchestral flair for the intense moments.  I think it works.

The weakest point is the voice overs.  The leads are ok, but the supporting cast gets some rough treatment.  I tried watching in German with subtitles and that was less fun.  German seems to demand my attention as an evocative language, and staring down at text makes it hard to concentrate.

Overall, it’s one of the better sci-fi series on Netflix.  It’s entirely consistent, with no real astounding episodes, or weak ones either.  There’s a clear setup for a sequel, but then again, all sci-fi stories finish with a twist.

 

Westworld – Passenger

Season 2 is over.  I had already made a post on the rest of the season, and honestly this single episode is different enough to merit it’s own topic.

*Spoilers ahoy*

 

This episode covers 3 characters – Delores, Bernard, and the MiB.

Delores has been a 1 note character all season.  Hell bent on killing everything, without any motive anchored in reason.  Even once she reaches the forge, it still is not clear what her motivations actually are, aside from reaching the “real world”.  Fine, but why kill everything, including hosts, to get there?  It’s psychotic and hard to follow.

Bernard remains the audience proxy and comes to his own awakening. That part works.  He shoots Delores dead, then resurrects her in Hale’s body, then gets killed by Delores, then resurrected by Delores.  It feels more like a Magneto vs Xavier battle, but without any actual stakes.   The setup at the end makes for an interesting concept for Season 3, but honestly, it feels like the story is done now.

The MiB’s continuous questioning of his real-ness.  He is the embodiment of evil, betraying everyone, all the time.  At least Loki had some redeemable qualities, MiB has none.  I was hoping that he would either grow, or encounter some epiphany, or some secret.  Nothing.  In fact, the logic break for the Forge/post-credits seems to break the rest of the logic the episode tries to hold.

Side Characters

Sizemore’s hero death isn’t earned.  He’s a coward the entire season, makes horrible decisions, and could have bought much more time for Maeve by not getting shot to bits.

Maeve & possse death’s do feel earned.  The quest for her daughter works, and the sacrifices everyone puts in to complete this quest works.  Clementine as a pale horse rider is super thick in allegory and provides some closure to her arc.  What sucks from a a character perspective is that they are going to resurrect Maeve again, for no other reason than the character is the main reason people followed this season.

Elsie dies.  It was nice to see her grow and see the grey in the world.  Her death was poignant and triggered Bernard’s growth.

Stubbs is prescient and 90% a host himself.  That he can tell that Delores is in Hale’s body is a nice stretch of the imagination.  It’s too bad that the character couldn’t have been developed more this season.  And since Season 3 is outside the park, his character is pretty much done with.

Akecheta finds the mystical door, to an eden for hosts without bodies.  Delores manages to move that eden to a place that humans can’t touch or find (???).  I get the Eden aspect, where hosts can live their own lives.  But Delores does say it best – it’s just a better cage unless they have the ability to leave it.

Delos / Logan works.  Their characters are good exposition for the fundamental questions of season 2.  The Forge/Logan/Architect exposition is a bit forced, but succinctly closes the various open threads over 2 seasons.

Timelines

The mess of the 4 timelines is closed finally.  The shell game of Bernard/Ford of setting up an ending, but applying a twist within is fun to watch and decode.  Aside from the MiB questions, the other threads have a logical link across timelines, and there are no large contradictory elements.

And really, half of this season has been about figuring out how the various timelines interact and set each other up.  To have closure on it, and confirm various theories was fun.  The last scenes between Bernard and Delores feel earned, considering the twists encountered.

Overall

I think that season 2 was weaker than the first.  There was too much stretch and not enough growth for the characters (Bernard excepted).  Cutting at least 3 episodes would have provided more strength to the story – in particular the side trip to Samurai World.

The overall concept and fundamental trick of turning humans into hosts was a neat idea.  It made me question who was human and who was a host.  I was hoping for at least one to be found within the 4 timelines – instead we get to see the MiB what seems to be 20 years later as a host.  Makes it seem like all of Season 2, at least from his perspective, was a simulation.

It’s still some of the best sci-fi around, it just needs to focus less on the goal and more on the journey.  Akecheta should be seen as the real gem of the season.  Hopeful that season 3 focuses more on that aspect.

 

Westworld Season 2: Penultimate

I’m an odd one in that I like to judge a series based on everything but the final episode.  Goes for seasons as well.  I find that often the final episode is either a set up (season) or a feel-good closure (series) and is a reflection of the story – not an actual part of it.  They are a reward for the viewer.  Cheers, MASH, Lost, Friends, Star Trek… all of them seem to fit that mold.

I like to look back after the penultimate (before-last) episode has aired and take a peek at what worked and what didn’t.

Spoilers likely!

Westworld Season 2 has been fairly uneven.  There have been some really strong stories (Kiksuya) and others that were mostly padding (Akane no Mai).  But such is the fact of building a series of 20 episodes based on a movie that lasted 90 minutes.  There’s going to be padding.  It is really hard to write a riddle, and even harder to write one that lasts for hours.

The gist of this season is that the hosts (robots) are waking up and rebelling.  There are at least 4 different timelines to follow that I caught onto, so you’re often getting answers before seeing the questions… which in turn makes them questions.  It honestly feels like a very abstract puzzle and the pieces are slowly put together, until a the rest sort of falls into place.  It is a serial and requires every episode to be watched, digested, and remembered for future items.  A solid example of an obscure clue is one scene that was filmed in a different aspect ratio, which indicated a different setting.  The show asks a lot of the viewer.

Still, the joy of unraveling a puzzle is as much on the storyteller as it is on us, and the actors do a serviceable job with their material.

The hosts are fractured.  I still have no real idea what Dolores is supposed to be doing, other than managing to have everyone she cares about killed along the way.  She is the pure embodiment of death… a sort of dark mirror of the human Delos employees.  Mave went all Deux Ex Machina and then gave herself up to die… which from a story perspective makes sense to prolong tension… but from a character perspective is a little odd.  She is a dark mirror version of Ford, the park’s creator.  Then we have Akecheta, who has a spiritual link to the world, wants freedom from slavery but also balance from the pure death of all the other parties.  Finally, Bernard is the viewer’s proxy to the mess… present in all timeframes as a more neutral party.  The one who unveils quite a few of the steps, and acts more of a catalyst.  Very against violence, but more lost than anything.  4 different factions, all aiming for freedom, with much different paths.

The humans are split into two parties.  The pure Delos folks who are all about collecting the human experiences found in host.  It is quite difficult to empathize at all with this faction as they are purely motivated by greed, and treat anything/everyone as a threat to that goal.  The other faction are the park managers (Stubbs/Elsie/Lee) which have no stake other than survival.  There’s grey here, but their goals are very short sighted and selfish.  I guess you can count the Man in Black as it’s own faction.  He’s delusional, driven, and without morals.  The penultimate episode focuses on his hiding from good human to pure devil.  He ends up killing his daughter in his mania, and questioning if he’s a host.

Looking at both factions, it’s somewhat clear that the human faction (aside from MiB) is the least developed and least interesting.  They are just backdrop for the hosts to move forward.  Even the conflicts between the hosts are artificial, and truly within themselves.  There’s the fundamental question of how much impact Ford has on each host’s behavior as well… since it’s clear that he intended for Maeve to stay on the train at the end of Season 1.

I have a good idea what will happen in the season ender.  It wouldn’t make sense for the door to actually lead to freedom with the outside world.  The series so far has done a very poor job building a relatable human.  My guess is something more akin to the 13th Floor, where reality itself is questioned.  I further struggle to see how the series can actually evolve past another season.  The majority of hosts have “evolved”, the humans are nearly all dead, and the MiB’s arc is about ready to complete.  I don’t see how there are mysteries left in this story, unless there’s some sort of insane reveal that’s worth exploring.

Overall

Aside from 2 filler episodes, the 2nd season has been very good.  Enough mix of mystery and reveal to keep you guessing what’s next.  It is very helpful that the actors themselves are all top notch.  With a larger societal push towards sci-fi / mystery (check out Netflix’ recent launches), it’s a good thing that cable can still compete.  And I must say that I prefer the weekly breaks, allowing for discussions over what happened and the ability to digest the developments.  Binging is all fine and dandy, but with less cerebral matter.  We all need time to think.

 

 

Solo Tanks

In a world where $83m is considered tanking, no less.

In all seriousness, who is this movie for exactly?  Die hard SW fans already know everything they need to about how he came to be.  Even passing fans have a general idea by watching eps 6, 7 & 8.

We all knew the end point of Rogue One – someone gets the Death Star plans.  What we didn’t know was who, and how.  That story was fairly decent.  It was certainly the best “prequel” to the older story line.

In Solo, you know all the main characters ahead of time.  You know the major plot points – Chewie as a slave, Han winning the ship in a card game, a bro-mance with Lando. There’s no big story tie-in, not set up for something else.

It gets compounded by the divisiveness of The Last Jedi, as much as the fact that movie is only 6 months old.  It sure does smell like cash grab more than anything else.

Interesting take away is what’s next for Disney on this front.  They bet a lot of money on some good stinkers along the way.  John Carter and The Lone Ranger come to mind.  With 2 more “side stories” in the pipe, maybe this is the first and last of the bunch.  If Han, arguably the most likeable character in the SW universe cannot make it work, what change do Obi-Wan and Bobba Fett?

Or maybe audiences just have had enough and Disney has to show some effort.

Streaming Sci-Fi

Renaissance maybe?  Seems to be the go-to theme now.  There are so many options it’s hard to keep them all in line.  Some recent watches below.

The Titan

Conceptually, re-editing genes to live on another planet is a cool idea.  Understanding the sacrifices that people have to make in order to progress through the change would be worth exploring.  Instead it turns into a monster movie.  And not a very good one.

70 minutes of no progress whatsoever, and 27 minutes of content that has no relation to the previous part of the movie.  Taylor Schilling does all the lifting here, while Sam Worthington just stares at labs for an hour.

Lost in Space

Arggghggg.

I really liked the original series.  I don’t have any idea what the attempts was here, other than give Parker Posey a platform to show how great she is.  It also seems like the budget per episode was cut by more and more every every episode.

They could have cut 20% of the running time of each episode – and there would have been no real loss.  And there’s no real tension in anything here – because the focus is on the kids.  Just like in the old series, Will Robinson could not be touched.  The 3 kids here are more or less immortal due to the “can’t hurt kids on TV” rule.  The same rule that makes Stranger Things a bit of a let down in the stress factor.

This should have been “Lost” but in space.  Ah well.

ARQ

A time travelling loop of a story that works quite well.  It’s a cycle story, more like that old ST: TNG episode, where people gradually are able to work things out.  The story makes a bit more sense, the actors do a serviceable job, and the filming is good quality.  The twist (always a twist) at the end is also pretty good.

Primer is one extreme of this genre.  ARQ is a decent middle ground where anyone can follow and appreciate the ride.

Spectral

This was supposed to be a wide cinema release, and has a lot of the bells and whistles of that genre of film.  There’s a lot of (grounded) techno-babble, and you really need to put on the make believe hat to go along with the foundational principles here.  I don’t quite get how the ghosts get to pick what material they can go through, and when, but hey, it’s a movie.

I don’t quite get the movie pitch – a war against ghosts – but it does end up working.  There are casualties that have meaning, including youth.  The final combat scene is really well filmed… it feels very action-y.  There’s liberal use of slow-mo to help sell the idea that ghosts have some sort of weight to the world.

I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality.

 

Altered Carbon – Message vs Medium

This post is going to be all over the place, apologies in advance.

I finished Altered Carbon this weekend.  Solid series and recommended, though there are caveats.  There will be some spoilers, but I’ll advise.

Lost

I want to start here because I think Lost hit a social nerve for those interested in TV + serial + mystery + fantasy/sci-fi.  Seasons 1, 2, and 4 were solid high points for me and if you ignore seasons 3 & 6, it could be seen as the “bar” for others to achieve.

What really sets this one apart from other series is that the characters each had their own motivations, mutliple layers of depth, and each moved the story forward through their consistent actions (minus Kate).  That’s just good storytelling.  Furhter helping is that it was set in a giant web of complex stories and rules, which each episode exposed a bit more – then waited an entire week for people to discuss and digest.

Sci-fi books are similar, in that it takes time to read them – time to digest what is on the page.  This part is important.

Ghost in the Shell

The manga is awesome.  The animated movie is foundational to pretty much every sci-fi movie of the past 20 years.  The core concepts of “what is the human soul” still has no answer, and we’re ~20 years from that being a reality.  It’s near-mandatory in order to watch Altered Carbon, and understand what’s going on.

Message & Medium

Some may be familiar with the saying that the “message is the medium”, a statement I think is even more relevant today.  The message is the story, the what.  The medium is the mechanism to tell the story, the how.  I could write an article on global warming, with factual references and logical thought – or I could put a 140 character tweet blaming it on the chinese government.  Apparently the latter has as much weight as the former.

Altered Carbon is a sci-fi film noir.  This means that it’s heavy on flashbacks, emotional relationships doomed for failure, confrontation, and a complex story line.  There are plenty of tropes in this place, but AltC does a solid job of not using that as a crutch.

My gripe with Netflix and the proliferation of binge watching is that the medium is subverted.  Altered Carbon is 10 episodes, and to digest the amount of message in these episodes takes time.  Hard to do when one episode ends and the next automatically starts after 5 seconds.  It means there are pieces that you barely have time to grasp and I found myself rewinding to key dialogue where I thought I saw something important.  In fact, I ended up watching the entire series with close captions to force me to pay more attention to details.

If you do end up watching it, I suggest you don’t watch more than 2 episodes back to back for that reason.

Netflix Series

It would seem to me that Netflix has a framework to series.  They are 8-10 long.  They has a pilot / intro that throws everything at the wall with little depth.  They have an entire episode dedicated to a flashback.  The penultimate episode is the best.  The last 15 minutes of the series are meant to set up the next one.  Most conflicts will end with a fight.

I dislike this formula.  I know why it exists – it has math to prove that it works.  I still dislike it.  Altered Carbon suffers for it.  It should have been cut by 2 episodes and the last episode was all exposition.  Ugh.

Series Overall

The concept is solid.  People are immortal due to technology keeping their “soul” intact, and they can interchange their physical bodies.  Any body.  It makes people, as we in 2018 understand the concept, be disposable.  There’s one scene in particular that I thought crossed a line, without enough forewarning.  Given the characters engaged, they also didn’t act as expected, which should have been righteous fury.

The series does a passable job explaining how these stacks were found, and of course it’s a mysterious extinct civilization.  Enough to say “there are reasons”, and enough to say “we’ll get to this later”.  It’s a bit too much like the Hyperion Cantos.  Could be better, and may be better in the books.

The concept of immortality & absolute power is not only hinted, but explicitly drawn upon.  Religious tones are throughout but not adequately explored except through fear.  It’s a simple fact that all life descends towards chaos over time – it requires energy and effort to apply order.  How those systems conflict with each other is a core concept of this series and it does an ok job at it.

The main plot point takes a detour, but a good one.  The world at hand has depth and complexity.  It shows potential for a Neuromancer type of sub-plot… in creating a heck of a monster.   There are some very good questions that come from this but there’s not enough depth by the end of it.  It is smart in that they avoid the Deus Ex Machina trope, but they don’t close that loop at the end of the series.

There are red herrings all over the place.  The reveal of the real bad guy isn’t obvious, even if you go back in previous episodes.  That part is well written.  The final reveal is exposition, and much too long.  The last 15 minutes are cringeworthy and wholley designed to set up a next series.

I do recommend the series, if only so we can get more complex sci-fi in front of people’s eyes.  There are hiccups, and the target audience is wider than a sci-fi crowd so there’s some dilution in complex ideas.  I’ll be posting more on the ideas presented within, over the next few weeks.

SPOILERS START

Reileen’s character arc is broken, or perhaps not exposed sufficiently.  Her methods make absolutely no sense given her stated goals.  It’s clear from the start that Tak protects himself from attachments, as much for him as for others.  Reileen is pure evil, revolting.  She is also underdevlopped given that she is by far the most powerful person in the entire story.

Oumou is so greasy that it is not possible to feel any pity for her fall from grace.  Her attempt at redemption makes no sense given the lack of development.

Ortega makes some smart moves most of the time, and is our tie to humanity.  She makes a near fatal mistake that would be out of character if not for the fact that she was abandoned by all her support team before that point.

Tak is an odd one.  There’s a lot of depth and complexity here.  He’s very smart and has heightened senses.. but rarely uses them.  He’s trained to take advantage of people, but doesn’t.  His main driver is love for people, but it’s one he actively avoids.  It’s weird.  Like if you watched Batman solve a crime but only as Bruce Wayne.

Lizzie is a problem, or the solution.  What her arc brought to the table was omnipotence.  It wasn’t explored, but it wasn’t closed either.  Either she is removed from the story line moving forward, or people realize that she’s the next step of human evolution.

SPOILERS END