Love, Death & Robots

I think sci-fi is my favorite genre.  My favorite stories come from the golden age, when people were chasing stories rather than paychecks (the 80s… ugh).  There’s a child-like vision in those older stories, where the science projections were more magical and focused on the psychology, rather than the technology itself.  Or from another lens, great sci-fi is about people, not technology.

Netflix has an anthology series Love, Death & Robots that tells multiple story lines, with a sci-fi backdrop.  They are between 5-17 minutes, so really quick bites.  Anthologies are like a buffet, there’s something for everyone, but not everything is for someone.  I used to have bookshelves full of them as a kid (Reader’s Digest is exactly that).  And in most sci-fi, the best stories are the short ones, where there’s plenty of open ended questions (see The Martian Chronicles).

There were quite a few highlights here for me, in my order of preference

Beyond the Aquila Rift

This plays out like golden sci-fi, with an interesting punch at the end.  There are some open ended parts, and a nice twinge of horror within.

Sonnie’s Edge

The main line story is great, the setting a bit less.

Secret War

Aside from the monster design, every other bit of this story hits near-perfect notes.  It’s very tight, and is eerily relatable.

The Witness

There are many stories like this, but none that look like this.  Apparently there was no mo-cap, which frankly, bodes well for CG as a whole in the genre.

Shape-Shifters

Werewolves in modern day setting… much better than Underworld’s gothic take on it.  The blending of genres works here… a bit like the Forever War.

 

Not to say that the other shorts are bad, they just resonated less with me.  When the Yogurt Took Over I’ve read a dozen times now in other formats.  A half dozen others seem like they are pulled straight from Heavy Metal.

Considering how short each episode is, it’s very digestible.  Most of us can spare 17 minutes to watch an interesting story.  Kind of hoping we get more anthologies in this vein.

Rim of the World

When homage turns to collage.

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Netflix has a new movie out, Rim of the World.  It’s a re-take on every single classic 80’s adventure ever produced.  To a nearly absurd level.  Just look at the picture and tell me it doesn’t look like a mash between a half dozen ideas (Red Dawn, Goonies, ET, Stand by Me are pretty evident.)

Loner/nerd kid gets sent to camp, to grow.  Makes 3 friends (female, mouthy kid, tough kid).  Aliens invade.  They need to save the world because every adult around them dies.  CGI is a wonderful pastiche of high-school attempts and purposeful stop-motion looks.  Montage included.  It’s worth a re-watch just to count the number of themes it borrows from other movies.

If Stranger Things hadn’t hit a few years ago, this would be  much easier to digest. Stranger Things uses the 80s as a backdrop to tell the story.  Here, the 80s are the story.

It’s a no-apology romp, with the hammiest of delivery, and most straightforward plot.  There are literally no surprises at all here, everything happens as it should.  Which in nostalgic terms, is certainly a plus.  People like the comfort of the familiar.  And it Netflix is any smarter about this, then we’re going to spent the next 5+ years with films in this vein.  80s/early 90s people are the main target for Netflix, so why not get those eyeballs?

It’s a solid B movie, where it doesn’t try to ever take itself seriously.

Also new on Netflix – Bash Brothers.  Now that is worth a watch, just not with the kids around!

Plot vs Character

Writing is hard.  No other way to put it.  There are hundreds of thousands of writers…and they follow a bell curve of talent like any other group.  When one of them stands out, it’s fairly obvious because of the sheer amount of material with which to compare.  And writing is one of those things that people do for 2 reasons – cathartic and exposure.  I do it for the former, I have no illusions that I am some grand auteur.  But I’ve met (we all have) many a writer who thought they were the next Stephen King…

And even the best writers have off days.  Back to Mr. King.  His “best” writing period was when he was on more drugs than a rock band.   His magnum opus series of the Dark Tower took a rather significant nosedive in quality once he got clean.  I’m not saying he should not have gotten clean, but you can draw a pretty clear line in terms of quality output. Bradbury wrote 5x as much that was drivel compared to noticeable.  Asimov was all over the map, and in later years admitted he was writing more for the paycheck than the story (which is crazy if you look at all the things he did).

Then you have writers who just can’t complete their work.  Robert Jordan passed away.  GRR Martin has writers block.  TV shows / movies swap writers over the years.  Point being, initial quality is not reflective of future quality – simply higher odds.

Character vs Plot

Arguably the best writers are those that write characters first, and the plot second.  They avoid tropes, and require some forethought to resolving situations as they are restricted.  I mean if you’re talking about a woman in the 20th century, they are not all of a sudden going to find a jetpack and escape a pack of wild gorillas.  Sometimes, these writers get painted into a corner.  The plot says that they need to be in a certain spot, but the writer knows that it’s going to take some logical steps to get there.  And we end up with extra chapters/books rather than a shortcut.

Plot writers are all about story and need the people in it to make wildly differing decisions to make the story move forward in interesting ways.  Dan Brown is a perfect example.  He writes great adventures, edge of your seat.  His characters are super heroes, who suffer from continual mental lapses, and the text is full of contradictory information.  In many cases, the writing is so poor that solutions become present without the reader being able to make any logical connections.

Game of Thrones

Books first.  I’ve read them and they are primarily character driven.  They make consistent decisions based on circumstances, and the fact that main line characters die is evidence that sometimes the plot takes precedence.  It’s not perfect, but it’s damn good to read though.  The important part of the books is that while set in a fantasy setting, the story is fundamentally about the character interactions.  The Red Wedding is a much more important event as compared to the Red Witch’s powers.

The TV series followed the books, with some artistic liberties.  Those liberties were a bit over the top in some cases (the crypt scene in particular).  Still, it generally followed the book story line.  Then the books stopped and the show continued on its own path.  While there were high spots, there were quite a few low ones.  All of a sudden characters could travel at the speed of light.  They’d miraculously survive insurmountable odds multiple times.  They’d charge into certain death when a more advantageous option was present.

But people still with it, because of the potential of greatness.  These last few episodes though… they are pushed almost entirely by plot.  A “threat” since the opening act of the first episode is dealt with in a single episode.  A hugely strategic advantage (dragon) would not be used on a kamikaze run.  When an entire army is exhausted, you don’t walk them hundreds of miles against a waiting foe.   You don’t pair up an asexual character with their entirely platonic friend… over a drinking game no less.

Writing endings is notoriously difficult.  In life, there are not clear ends and even less so when you are tracking dozens of character threads.  Lost did an amazing job at proving that point.  Sopranos was the exact opposite, since it focused every bit on the family and there wasn’t final closure, simply life moving on.  Breaking Bad is another good example of a solid writing due to narrow characters.

So while GoT certainly has spectacle attached, the odds of it finding footing in 2 more episodes are pretty darn small.   Too many spinning plates, not enough time to address them.

Russian Doll

The setup for this Netflix series is pretty simple.  Nadia keeps dying at various points, then restarting from her most recent birthday party.  The Groundhod Day mechanic has been used mainly in sci-fi (ARQ was solid) but here we have more of a black comedy.  Well, given Natasha Lyonne’s past issues, perhaps this is more of a twisted biography.

Nadia is not a sympathetic character in the hero sense.  She’s a messed up addict, with some pretty freaky friends, and generally wants to be left alone.  She has a mouth that makes sailors blush.  She’s not even an anti-hero, since her drives are nearly entirely self-preservation.  But, and this part is what makes the series, she’s human and makes reasonable decisions.  I mentioned this in the previous post about Dragon Prince season 2, how there was no growth, and only the plot made the story move.  That is not the case here. Really solid.

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This picture starts every new life

Nadia certainly has a loner persona, and that this only effects her makes it all the more odd.  What’s really interesting is that if you pay attention, you start noticing details.  Those details become much more explicit as the story progresses.  More than that, and it’s spoiler territory.  Let’s just say that as much as it’s binge-worthy, you still need to pay attention.

I’d be remiss to not talk about the soundtrack.  It’s a crazy eclectic mix of genres – Beethoven, Cults, John Maus – add just the right amount of mood to the scenes.

Interesting side note is that Amy Poehler is involved as a series co-creator.  You can see the influences in the absurdist in-your-face dry humor.  Natasha Lyonne’s sarcastic wit is in every scene, and her drive to explore every relationship, multiple times, is refreshing.  Greta Lee in particular…she’s the Ned Ryerson and her delivery of the same line, multiple times, doesn’t ever seen to get under the skin.

There are plenty of things to watch on Netflix, most of them mediocre.  It’s nice to be able to find something that really does a great job all around.  Solid recommendation.  Just not with the kids.

Dragon Prince – Season 2

I rather liked the first season.  The second season was supposed to get into the lore a bit more.  It sort of did that, but I find it lost track of pretty much everything else because of it.

When season 1 ended, the egg had hatched, the baby dragon king came about with an attachment to Ezran, Callum lost the ability to cast magic, Rayla gained her arm back, Viren killed the king and sent his daughter & son to capture the princes.  That was a solid set up.

When season 2 ends we still have a baby dragon, Callum regained the ability to cast magic, you learn a bit about the queen, Viren goes off the deep end because people see through his lies… and that’s it.

I could write a long summary, but if the series is of any interest all you need to do is watch episode 9.  Absolutely nothing that happens before that provides any payoff or value.  In particular the Claudia/Soren combo who make decisions based entirely on the plot rather than like actual people.  It’s mind boggling to have a series with zero consequences.  In fact, when there are consequences, the plot somehow manages to find a way to erase them.  A mile away.

There are plenty of good series on Netflix.  This is not one of them.  DC Titans is pretty good.  Next up, Russian Doll.

 

Star Wars Existential

I’ve been pretty firm in my overall dislike of the direction take in The Last Jedi.  It would be fair to say that the general mood isn’t positive either.  Got me thinking.

Religion

Star Wars is a religion.  No question there.  Prior to Disney, there was an agreed upon canon.  A set of rules and history that people flocked towards.  Knight of the Old Republic was the foundation for light/dark, how the various empires built the galaxy, how lightsabers were made… everything.  The defining moment was the Battle of Yavin (destruction of first Death Star) – commonly referred to as BBY or ABY.  Think about that for a second… we use BC/AD for our dates.  Lord of the ring uses Ages.  Star Wars is big enough, and complex enough, that the dates are referred to by a specific defining event.

ABY brought episodes 5/6 and a significant part of the expanded universe.  Mara Jade, Thrawn, Yuuzhan Vong, Jacen Solo… all come after the movies.  Even the stories prior to the movies pretty much dictated how Vader came to be.  Sure, there were details in the films that didn’t align (the hatred of sand) – but the 3 storylines were written 20 years before the movies were made.

People celebrated Star Wars (May the 4th).  They spent 40 years dressing up as them.  Not only consuming the product but building upon it.  Nearly all of it had the Lucasfilm sign of approval too, which was notoriously hard to get.

Then Disney bought it all and torched it.  Significant parts of the expanded universe is now referred to as Legends.  I was somewhat cautious of this, since that lore had a significant impact on the story telling.   Maybe they wanted more freedom to explore certain characters.

The Films

The Force Awakens was a remake of episode 4, with all the telltale signs of a JJ Abrams mystery box.  Rey’s heritage, how with no practice she beat a force user who was trained since birth, who Snoke was, how this new empire established itself so quickly.  Plenty of promise for future development (if heavy handed).

Rogue One was an interstitial story – we knew how it ended but not so much how it began (in this new storyline).  It was a pretty good story.  The investment people had in these characters were more archtetypes of the SW cannon.  All of them are dead, and no one has ever referred to a single one of them since.  Remember the BBY/ABY item, the most important event in all of Star Wars?  The film explains how that was setup, then never heard of again.

Last Jedi’s goal was to subvert the established lore.  Where the two previous items stretched the imagination, it was still close enough.  The stories hit the right notes.  You could suspend disbelief with the promise of future explanations.  (There’s a LOST analogy here).  This movie instead took the baseline rules of the most foundational items and broke them.  People can now use the Force across a galaxy.  The Jedi code for harmony is wrong.  Luke, who managed to convert Darth Vader, was willing to kill his young nephew for the potential of the dark side. That lightspeed can be tracked.  That any ship can be turned into a super weapon.  Each of these items breaks the previous movies.  Why shoot missiles in the Death Star when a Corellian Crusier can just lightspeed and crash into it to destroy it?

Han Solo story.  If this wasn’t a Star Wars movie, it would have had much more praise.  Square peg, round hole.

Impacts

It is an existential crisis for the Star Wars fans.  They have spent years living in that world.  Finding the links between one story and another.  Seeing characters come and go.  Finding more minute details of a given world that adds life to that world space.

Disney underestimated what Star Wars meant to people, they saw it just as a pre-built story foundation.  They did it with Marvel to great success.  But Marvel was never about world building – it was about characters with a specific powerset and attitude.  Not like we had Wolverine giving hugs and shooting lasers from his toes.  In Star Wars the characters are simply agents to the world.  Tatooine is a much a character as Leia.  The Battle at Hoth is arguably more important that the death of Luke’s aunt & uncle.  There are hundreds of those events.  Many of it thrown aside and directly conflicting with what happened before.

This is a lore reset event.  If somehow LotR was reset and Sauron could teleport anywhere, and Frodo could kill Orcs with his eyes, you’d see the same reaction from fans.  Disney has to build an entire world, a new history, a new set of rules, a new set of characters to move forward from this.  Then it needs to convince the fan base that this will stick and be worth the investment.

Or, they could simply disown the attempt made here and move back towards the established rule sets.  Seems to be a whole lot more money to be made there.

Tangents to Others

Change is certainly difficult.  Massive change typically has massive repercussions.  There are enough religious and political upheavals to illustrate this point quite well. When we’re talking about fictional stories, then we need to look at things that are simply massive in scale.

Lord of the Rings has a rather tight grip on it’s lore.  The Hobbit was an atrocious series of movies, but was not a large afront to the lore.

Star Trek has about 23 days worth of TV shows and Movies to go through… before you talk about any written media.  Even with an entire reboot of the timeline, the foundational lore of the series stayed the same.  There are 2 stories that did not follow this model – Speed Limit and Threshold – both of which have been disowned.  It follows true.

Even Game of Thrones has a set of rules that need to be followed, and it would be hard to argue that the extension through the TV series broke that many rules (except maybe time travel to cross large distances on foot in less than a day).

And World of Warcraft comes to mind here.  The time travel in WoD has been practically erased (Yrel who?).  The rather ridiculous character arcs and “morally grey” characters in BfA feel like sand in your teeth.  Seems they are trying to address that in 8.1 – we’ll see how that turns out.

Point is, when you have a very large audience and a very complicated lore foundation, it is not possible to please everyone.  People are willing to accept bits of change, but not large swathes that go counter to years of previous effort.  Even less so when you’re impacting the stories that the fans themselves have developed.  People become fans because they see themselves in that world.  When they stop seeing that, well, there’s not much world left.

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.