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Movie Review: Jupiter Ascending

It would be too easy to call Jupiter Ascending a “bad” film. It would also be a crime against the English language and common decency, itself, to suggest the Wachowskis’ sci-fi epic is a “good” movie. Jupiter Ascending wants, desperately so, to be a 21st century version of The Fifth Element. But the Wachowskis are no Luc Besson, and Jupiter Ascending, for all its ambition and flash, lacks the essential charm, timing, and wit that made The Fifth Element work.

Jupiter Ascending tells the story of Jackie Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Russian émigré, who cleans American toilets for a living. The movie is smart enough to get right into the sci-fi twist on the longing-ladies-of-fairy-tales trope, rather than spending forty minutes faffing about with Jupiter’s backstory. We witness a few scenes of Jupiter coveting the expensive lifestyle of her social betters as a prelude to a bunch of Sectoids aliens legally distinct from X-Com’s intellectual property showing up to kill her. Fortunately, Jupiter has a guardian in the form of Channing Tatum, who plays some sort of wolfman hybrid with hover boots, man pain, and the power to remain shirtless for half his scenes.

So yeah, I guess I’m not the target demographic. If the secret alien princess gimmick doesn’t elucidate who the movie is playing to, then the parade of beefcake probably drives home the point. The scantily clad space babes of literally any other sci-fi movie are replaced by shirtless dudes alternatively pouting, grimacing, or showcasing their troubled past through gruffness. Okay, cool. Points for being different. Points for being progressive. However, dismantling traditional cinematic sexism through benign machismo and eye candy doesn’t add much to the story.

And at the risk of putting too fine a point on things, Jupiter Ascending’s story is probably the worst part of the movie. The aesthetics are amazing. Ships, costumes, and orbital megastructures all boast a richness of design and promise an amazing backstory. Visually, Jupiter Ascending makes Mass Effect look like the crude scribblings of a toddler with their crayons. What do they yield in terms of story? Cinderella meets the three bears. To wit:

I hate my life on earth.

Oh no, the bad aliens are trying to kill me, let’s go to space and meet my genetic children who all want to use me for some nefarious purpose.

This child is too cloying.

This child is too incestuous.

This child is too psychotic.

Well, fuck it. I’m going back to Chicago to clean toilets and hang out with my beefcake, wolfman, alien boyfriend. Also, hover shoes and I secretly own the Earth, but I still clean toilets because now I appreciate my garbage life through the lens of a meta immigrant experience.

Seriously, this is the entire story. For all the splendor built into Jupiter Ascending’s world, the actual story is light years wide and inches deep.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: it’s an action movie, of course it’s going to be shallow. Perhaps, perhaps not. What’s problematic in this case is how the lack of depth in the story shines a light on all of the areas where the writing cribs from other parts of science fiction’s history. In some ways, the entire enterprise is a love letter to L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth. Not the movie, mind you, the much, much longer novel about space capitalists. Likewise, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the movie’s utterly pointless homage to Brazil is the product of the Wachowskis holding Terry Gilliam’s cat hostage in exchange for ten pages of script. And when Jupiter invokes Brazil’s infamous form 27b/6 as a regulation against being kidnapped, I honestly could not tell if the movie is winking at the audience or shouting, “Do you get it?” like Bojack Horseman.

So it’s the archetypical hero’s journey for Jupiter and Jupiter Ascending. The story reaches for greatness, but it is poorly assembled and a depressingly textbook affair. This said, the movie stunning in its visual richness. The costuming is as extravagant as what one would expect from a Sofia Copolla period piece. The problem is that none of the aesthetic translates to meaningful plot. It adds depth to the setting, but not to the story. And without a strong story to anchor the fantastic, the entire narrative spins off in a thousand inchoate directions.

Jupiter Ascending

Directors: Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Writers: Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Stars: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne


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Movie Review: Ex Machina

UPDATE: I missed the point of this movie.

I’m a white guy who works in economics and economic development. Much like the tech industry, my field can be a boys club. That means I suffer from a bit of myopia when it comes to a story that deals with the literal objectification of women within a given industry. I got this one wrong. I’ve taken this error and turned it into a 1200 word essay I’m pitching to a few websites and magazines. I want my mea culpa on this to be as public as I can make it. I’ll leave the original review below as a perpetual reminder that sometimes I need to think harder before putting pen to paper.

A film like Ex Machina is an inevitable sort of thing. There’s nothing particularly profound in asking what will happen when someone with the tech savvy and wealth of Mark Zuckerberg, for example, turns his attention toward creating an artificial general intelligence for puerile purposes. Nor do I think that the latest entry from writer/director Alex Garland is a particularly fresh take on the decades-old man versus machine story. Ex Machina orbits a done idea based on a half-baked concept: the thinking machine challenging its creator. Yet a lack of novelty does not preclude the film being a technically proficient experience and a reasonably engaging story, even if the ending is dull as it comes.

Ex Machina is, essentially, a more philosophically inclined take on Robocop’s formula of character transformation. Herein, a reclusive tech savant summons a programmer to his mountain fortress. The programmer’s task is to administer a modified Turing Test on a human-form the robot. Ava (Alicia Vikander), the robot, and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), the programmer, engage in a series of dialogues where the programmer tests the humanity of the machine.

Narrative and visual clues, alike, suggest Caleb’s interviews with Ava are part of some test within a test. The film invites its audience to speculate about the true subject of the study. To my surprise, Ex Machina is sufficiently nimble in its writing to keep a viewer guessing, at least up until the end of the second act. Still, its endurance is no small feat for a movie with only four characters and a handful of sets.

Once the gambit is revealed, Ex Machina’s ending is something of a cut cloth affair. The movie’s tone shifts from one of discovery to heavy handed moralizing. To wit, mad engineering (e.g. making something for the sake of making it) is irresponsible, particularly where sentient beings are concerned. Giving a sex robot a sense of self proves to be an act of gross over-engineering. The movie’s ultimate scene is wrapped in a ribbon of the watchmaker’s hubris. Narrative consistency precludes any mention of Asimov’s Three Laws, thus resulting in an ending that hasn’t been fresh since 1970’s Colossus: The Forbin Project.

What I find most disappointing is how the film invites the average viewer, or at least someone who reads/writes less science fiction than this critic, to view Ex Machina’s lessons profound revelations. Certainly there is room to see this film as an empowering feminist critique on the commoditization of the female form. It’s easy to imagine how Nathan aka Evil Zuckerberg would monetize some variation of his sex robot into a consumer model. At the same time, there’s a fundamental misalignment between the depiction of a genuine AI we see on screen, and the rather limited AI necessary for building a convincing sex bot. In other words, if a person wanted to make a sex robot, they wouldn’t make something as smart as a Cylon. All they need is something that can convince its user it enjoys butt stuff as modus vivendi.

Ava may defy convention, existing as a princess-who-rescues-herself, but she only does so through the lens of a decades old technophobia. I expect more from science fiction of this day and age. It’s time to move past the fear of how machines might usurp and supplant humanity. This said, Ex Machina is sufficiently well-polished to rise above its rather limited imagination. There’s enough misdirection in the story’s first two-thirds to keep a viewer off balance, right up until the point where it goes reducto ad HAL 9000 in the third act.

Ex Machina

Director: Alex Garland

Writer: Alex Garland

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac


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Why The Martian is Better than Gravity

Since the title of this piece speaks for itself, I think I’ll skip the clever introduction and get right into it.

I really like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. I think it was one of the best movies of 2013, and one of the best movies of recent memory. At the same time, Gravity is also a flawed movie. After watching The Martian, those flaws now seem all the more obvious. And no, this has nothing to do with how Gravity played it fast and loose with the laws of physics and momentum. Don’t pretend you knew anything about orbital mechanics before watching Neal DeGrasse Tyson’s Everything Wrong with Gravity video.

The reason Gravity shits the bed compared to The Martian is because Dr. Ryan Stone happens to be a woman. Wait, wait, don’t start throwing things at me; I’m going somewhere with this. The problem isn’t that Dr. Ryan Stone is a woman, per se, so much as Hollywood thinks its audience can’t deal with Dr. Ryan Stone as a woman. Instead of letting Ryan Stone be a smart, if somewhat dispassionate person (i.e. an astronaut) she’s gets humanized. The vehicles for this relatability are Stone’s mommy hang-ups and the non-threatening way she does nothing exceptional in the movie.

Stone’s ability to work in space, and the unique skill set that saw her tapped as a mission specialist, are largely irrelevant to anything that happens after the movie’s first ten minutes. None of those skills, whatever they are, help her survive her orbital ordeal. Stone simply blunders from one thing to the next. She is largely the beneficiary of chance and the sacrifice of others, rather than any closely-held competence.

When Matt Kowalski (George Clooney’s character) asks Stone what she loves most about being in space, Stone responds with, “the silence.” I ask you, what sort of person wants to be an astronaut because they are on the run from their life on Earth? What kind of space agency puts a seemingly manic depressive into space? Cue the loud farting noise.

Hollywood won’t let Stone be the equal of Kowaski to the point of almost breaking the movie. <sarcasm> Because clearly the audience can’t deal with a woman acting in such a traditionally male defined role </sacasm>. The humanization of Ryan Stone makes the through-line of her story one of luck and blunders. At the end of the day, she’s a terrible astronaut (though still better than Anne Hathaway, the worst astronaut ever). Her return to Earth is the closing of a circle that said she never had any business being in space to begin with.

Now compare Stone to Mark Watney. Watney is so competent that The Martian is essentially competence porn. Luck only exists within the negative confines of a man versus nature conflict during Watney’s two-year stay on Mars. Watney’s ability to survive each ordeal is the result of a MacGyver-like force of competence.

He comes up with a way to manufacture water from rocket fuel. He repurposes half of his habitat module into a greenhouse for growing potatoes in human shit and Martian regolith. He uses a crashed Martian lander to establish two-way communications with Earth. Does Ryan Stone do anything nearly that interesting during her attempt to escape low-Earth orbit? Let’s review:

Panics and blows through all her O2.

Gets rescued by Kowalski.

Complains.

Watches Kowalski die.

Attempts suicide.

Has a vision of Kowalski.

Makes it home because today was not a good day to die.

Again, my point here isn’t to say Gravity is a bad movie. Gravity is a beautiful movie. Gravity is also an emotionally affective movie. However, after watching The Martian, I want to know what Gravity could have been if Ryan Stone was even half as competent as Mark Watney.

What if Ryan Stone’s self-pity wasn’t her defining character trait? What if studio executives trusted the audience’s ability to handle a woman character in a very professional role without burdening her with mommy issues? We could have seen a version of Gravity where Ryan Stone survived through her own ingenuity, rather than on account of George Clooney and the grace of the gods.


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Book Review: Star Wars Aftermath

Wherever a reader lands on this novel, I have to marvel at the fury it has produced. The stream of festering vitriol I’ve seen directed against Chuck Wendig is as astonishing as it is tragic. Who knew a gay character turning down a taste of the alien strange would set a corner of the internet ablaze? Oh wait, it’s the internet, never mind.

Moving swiftly on, allow me to establish a baseline for evaluating this book. Star Wars, on screen, is as good as it is bad. From my point of view, the line between good and bad in Star Wars is Lawrence Kasdan, Dave Filoni, and Matt Michnovetz. I’m the guy who thinks that Empire is better than Jedi. I’m the guy who thinks the Darkness on Umbara arc of The Clone Wars is on par with Empire. I’m the guy who thinks that Star Wars is better when it goes deeper and dirtier (phrasing), and that’s why I think Chuck Wendig wrote a hell of a novel.

Whatever you think of George Lucas, one has to accept that he writes Star Wars for children. I don’t say this to cast aspersions, so much as to point out the obvious. Consider the good people of Coruscant pulling down a statue of Papa Palpatine after the Battle of Endor. A child would be fine with this scene because good is triumphing over evil – historical allusions notwithstanding. Adults look at that scene and ask why Stormtroopers aren’t cracking some skulls. Wendig begins his novel with the Imperial police opening fire on this very crowd.

A post-Endor Imperial summit on the planet Akiva, an Outer Rim world that houses the balance of the story, provides a necessary catharsis for Star Wars fans who dare to think about the mythos in a serious way. Here we learn how Imperial power fractures absent Palpatine. Likewise, readers encounter Imperial voices far removed from the jackbooted caricatures often seen on screen. Admiral Rae Sloane (don’t call her the new Thrawn) asks her Imperial cohorts why the people of the galaxy wouldn’t be afraid of the Empire.

To quote the Admiral, “We’re the ones that built something called a Death Star.”

In between the ever-so-brief interludes to fan favourite characters, Mr. Wendig focuses on players who embody the working people on both sides of the galactic civil war. Norra Wexley is a retired Y-Wing pilot with PTSD and a messed up family life. Sinjir Velus is an ex-Imperial Loyalty Officer (e.g. commissar), who escaped from Han Solo’s strike force on Endor, only to hit the bottle on Akiva. The aforementioned Admiral Rae Sloane is an Imperial starship captain intent staving off the Empire’s collapse while also demonstrating that not all Imperials are incompetent idiots. These are the stars of the novel, and they work because they buck the Star Wars convention of playing to easy archetypes.

Meanwhile, the novel’s penchant for politics manifests in the New Republic, the Rebel Alliance’s successor state, coming to terms with itself as a once and former military junta. Even as the Republic’s strength grows, Mon Mothma argues for military disarmament. As readers watch the story unfold on Akiva, while both the New Republic and Imperial Remnant wring their hands over what to do next, they see why both the Old Republic and the Empire were/are failed states. Simply, neither could offer the Galaxy Far Away stability or peace.

The Rebel Alliance, by its very nature was a destabilizing force. The Empire was as corrupt as it was brutal. Wendig takes it upon himself to build the New Republic as something that purports to let the galaxy find some semblance of calm. He’s not doing this singularly through high-minded speeches about peace and democracy. Nor is he pandering to what we might want in terms of epic space battles where Mon Cal Cruisers give Imperial Star Destroyers epic pastings. For that would only make the Republic a new sort of empire in and of itself.

Instead, Wendig gets his hands dirty with the inevitable, ugliness of war. Child soldier brigades on Coruscunt, for example. Not bleak enough? How about refugees fleeing the anarchy of their homeworlds in the aftermath of the Alliance freeing, but not holding, an Imperial world. Mr. Wendig uses the 20th century’s hangovers of military occupation and liberation as a thematic foundation for giving Star Wars some much needed depth. Some readers might cry foul at his making the Galaxy Far Away a dirty place, but like so many who lamented the loss of Star Wars: 1313, I’m content to roll around in the mud.

So no, gentle reader, you’re not going to learn about what happened to Han and Leia after Endor. Nor will you be treated to a story of Luke rebuilding the Jedi Order. Instead, you’re going to get a story that treats Star Wars’ adult fans like reasonably intelligent people. We all know there’s more to the Galaxy Far Away than the dysfunctional and incestuous antics of the Skywalker clan, so why not explore it?

Mr. Wendig, like Kasdan and Filoni, puts the war in Star Wars. War happens on many fronts, involving many people, and the line between those people is often a messy and changing thing. Aftermath effortlessly captures this notion, injecting a decidedly thoughtful and politically aware aesthetic into Star Wars. If you expect anything less than that in reading Aftermath, then (hand wave) this isn’t the novel you are looking for. Move along.


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Book Review: Slow Bullets

Slow Bullets is, I’m embarrassed to admit, my first exposure to Alastair Reynolds’ writing. Based on what I’ve heard of Mr. Reynolds’ works, I expected a story that would put a premium on the details of a hard science fiction environment. Instead, I was treated to a war story that is too complex for the all-encompassing label of space opera.

I suspect a reader will see my invocation of the words “war story” and “space opera” as an invitation to view Slow Bullets as military science fiction. Indeed, I thought about applying that label, myself. However, it feels like doing so runs the risk of minimizing the nuance at hand within this short book. Mr. Reynolds has written what I’m going to call a “peace story”. Though he borrows from elements of about half dozen tropes and sub-genres, their coalescence is something delightfully fresh.

Slow Bullets is told through the memoir of an ex-solider called Scur. The voice and tone are well suited to the nature of the story, inviting a measure of intimacy between narrator and reader. Scur’s narrative begins on the eve of a cease fire between an interstellar human hegemony divided against itself. The details of the war, such as why it happened, are left intentionally vague – save for the occasional nod toward a religious fuel fanning the flames of war. I suspect this is both an intentional allegory to contemporary times, and also a means of accentuating the grand pointlessness of armed struggle i.e. all fighting is arbitrary to the outsider. In the opening pages, readers witness Scur’s capture and torture before she wakes up in a cryopod aboard a prison transport.

The balance of the story brings together the narrative threads of a space ark, interstellar disaster (with just a soupcon of cosmic horror), and the survivor’s tale. The first half of the book, which concerns itself with how people of disparate ideologies forge an uneasy peace despite being centuries removed from their own time via an FTL accident, is considerably less interesting than what I see as the novel’s central question: who are we without our culture?

Mr. Reynolds uses Scur and her shipmates to explore questions of identity and shared history. In the wake of a cosmic disaster, Scur’s ship is more than a lifeboat for the survivors; it is a cultural ark for the collective knowledge of humanity. The novel posits that with a single shove from an external force, the culture and wisdom of the ages can be lost. Civilization, even among space faring peoples, is a fragile thing. Staring at the pieces of a broken world, Scur and her shipmates are forced to ask themselves if their individual identity is worth more than the identity of the species. It is hard not to look at that question and reflect upon it outside of a science fiction context.

Replace the cosmic horror with something much more pedestrian, like ocean acidification or a solar flare, and ponder how much our own national identities or religious affiliations should mean to us. How much of ourselves would we be willing to sacrifice to protect the greater whole of humanity? Would a Christian devote their life to protecting the last copy of the Quran? Would a Marxist give over part of themselves to the collected works of John Maynard Keynes? These are the sort of questions at the core of Slow Bullets. And if I have a single criticism of the novella, it’s that we only see these questions come to forefront late in the story.

This isn’t to suggest that the first half of the novel is unsatisfying. One should not jump into an existential crisis without allowing a reader time to make the allegorical connections between their world and the fictional one. At the same time, I wanted more of this crisis once it was recognized. I expect this desire for more should suffice as a ringing endorsement of Slow Bullets.

Military science fiction almost always asks its readers to examine solders giving up their lives for the greater whole. It can show the absurdity of conflict, or reinforce the notion that the cost of freedom is vigilance eternal. Mr. Reynolds uses Slow Bullets to take the traditional war story in a different direction, asking its soldiers, even in peace, to continue sacrificing their individuality for a greater whole. While it might be somewhat self-serving of an author to suggest that poetry and art is worthy of an individual sacrifice, this critic sees no reason to disagree. If the transcendent isn’t worth protecting, then what is the purpose of anything? A person would do well to keep this question in mind as they read Slow Bullets.


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Movie Review: The Martian

I often find myself talking about a movie’s potential. Does something live up to its potential? Did a given picture have any to begin with? When I first heard about The Martian, it struck me as a movie with a strong potential…to be completely god awful. Let’s review the facts.

Anybody who has watched a movie over the last twenty years knows that setting a story on Mars is a kiss of death. Matt Damon, though a capable actor, has been in some truly uninspiring roles of late. Similarly, Ridley Scott is just as likely to be abysmal as he is brilliant – leaning more toward the former than the latter. Pair this with an unartfully written self-published novel as the source material and anyone can be forgiven for sucking in an anxious breath when hearing about The Martian. When the time came for me to watch The Martian, all of its baggage (mostly labeled Prometheus, Interstellar, and Elysium) evaporated within the first five minutes.

The Martian delivers pretty much everything it promises in the trailer. Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney. During a misadventure with a sandstorm of Mad Max proportions, Watney’s crew leaves him stranded on Mars. Therein, Damon’s character has to survive on a dead world while NASA and JPL figure out a way to rescue him from a distance of twelve light minutes. And how does our hero survive nearly two years isolated on the red planet, plagued with shortages of power, food, water, and air? Through science! Maybe not perfect science, but science that’s good enough for Kerbal Space Program, and if it’s good enough for KSP it’s good enough for you.

As the “stranded person” trope goes, The Martian thankfully leans more toward Apollo 13 than Castaway. This spares the audience watching Matt Damon embarking upon a slow descent into madness. Astronaut Watney’s video journals, which one might rightly assume to be part of a NASA mission to Mars, are more than narrative sign posts and short primers for those who don’t get the science of Mars. These near-violations of the fourth wall inject a bit of humanity into the character. And a lack of humanity is exactly why most other “hard science” space movies fail.

Writers and directors tend to get fixated on the idea of portraying astronauts as consummate professionals (notwithstanding Anne Hathaway in Interstellar, who is the worst astronaut ever). While this might be true to form, straight laced and squared jawed professionals make for really boring and really alienating movie characters. So when Mark Watney tells mission control to go fuck themselves, the character might be moving away from what’s appropriate for an astronaut, but the film is giving the audience what they need to form a rapport with their protagonist. In this moment, we see the very soul of The Martian, and it’s not science; it’s comedy.

Real astronauts aren’t funny; astronauts are triple PhD holding Air Force colonels with an IQ of 190. To wit, the astronaut is neither you nor I. We are not good enough to be astronauts. Mark Watney, however, isn’t beyond making a poop joke. Watney complains about disco. Watney likes Iron Man. As an audience, we can watch The Martian and see just a little bit of ourselves in Mark Watney. In this moment of recognition the movie finds its ability to play to a very broad audience.

And if all that isn’t enough for you, the Martian has a really strong supporting cast. Kristen Wiig nails it as NASA’s head of public relations. Donald Glover throws Community’s Troy Barnes on the trash heap, embracing a physics nerd who would put Sheldon Cooper to shame. Jeff Daniels still seems like he’s playing that guy from The Newsroom instead of the director of NASA, but his dialogue makes up for uninspired acting. The movie may be called The Martian but it is very much an ensemble production.

Everything comes together for The Martian. Mars is depicted as a foreboding but beautiful place. Matt Damon shows us an astronaut who successfully balances being professional with being human. Screenwriter Drew Goddard tones down the engineering focus in the source material to something that still feels authentic to the audience. And most importantly, Ridley Scott doesn’t muck everything up with an attempt to be overly self-important and introspective. The Martian is a near-future space rescue movie that is grounded in the problems of physics and congressional appropriations to NASA. It is as technical as it needs to be, conceding the laws of physics to cinematic convenience only when absolutely necessary. Dare I say, the curse of the Mars movie has been broken.


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Game Review: Warhammer 40,000: Regicide

Chess is a game of perfect knowledge. Theoretically, every possible move and counter-move can be predicted. All things being equal, luck is never a deciding factor in a game of Chess. Victory will almost always go to the better player. And that last part speaks directly to why Chess can be a bit of a downer.

Between opponents of equal skill, Chess is as enjoyable as it is civilized. Between rivals of even marginally different ability, Chess can be as one-side as a boxing match between Mike Tyson and Pee Wee Herman. It is in this dissonance between players of varying skill that Warhammer 40,000: Regicide makes Chess a better game. Specifically, Hammerfall Studios has introduced chaos (with a small c) into Chess. In doing so, they’ve effectively thrown out decades of prefixed Chess gambits and leveled Chess’ playing field.

Regicide unfolds in two phases: movement and initiative. The movement phase is the same as a traditional game of Chess: pick a piece and make a move, following the rules for pawns, castles, bishops, knights, kings, and queens. The initiative phase takes a page from the likes of X-Com or Jagged Alliance. Space Marines and Orks spend action points to shoot, throw grenades, launch psychic attacks, or call in air strikes. No longer are white and black bishops limited to hurling foul language at each other from adjoining squares.

The inevitable fusillade of bolter fire in the wake of each move makes Regicide a much more tactical game than Chess. A good Chess player uses their army to set up areas of control. Regicide doesn’t offer such luxuries. A player who moves a lone bishop or a knight to the middle or far side of the board risks having a high-value unit cut to ribbons. Likewise, whatever anxiety a Chess player feels toward moving their queen (now a Librarian or Weirdboy) from the relative safety of the first rank is all the more present in Regicide.

The net-result is a game that puts Chess experts and amateurs on the same page. There may be some value to playing a traditional gambit against a foe in Regicide, but said gambit never imagined pawns at loggerheads being anything more than fence posts. Regicide lets those pawns toss grenades into the back ranks and shoot each other in the face – or at least try to. Though both the Space Marines and Orks have a better to-hit average than the typical X-Com recruit, missing on a 95% to-hit attack remains a maddening experience.

I expect most people will latch on to the game for the multi-player element. For those more inclined to play on their own, I am reasonably satisfied with the game’s single-player campaign. Take away all the veneration of the Immortal Emperor and the campaign is little more than a series of Chess problems. Albeit, they are Chess problems with heavy bolters and lascannons, and that counts for something in my book. A Chess nerd looking to revel in a decent WH40K story should be fine with the single-player. If someone goes looking for a campaign to rival Dawn of War or Space Marine then they will probably be disappointed. Tailor your expectations appropriately. 

The multi-player side of the game is similarly first-rate. My wait times for a game are relatively short. Notwithstanding the odd connectivity error in trying to set up a game, I experienced nothing but smooth sailing and solid competition once I got into things.

Visually, the game is at its finest when showing off the combat animations that occur when killing a piece through a Chess move. Should I ever grow tired of watching a Space Marine slice an Ork asunder with his chainsword, then I’ve grown tired of living. Glorious as those animations are, I would have liked to see a bit more animation on non-lethal hits. However, this point is far from a deal breaker for the game.

For the record, I reached out to Hammerfall with the inevitable question of, “Can I get an Eldar/Chaos/Imperial Guard/Tau army as future DLC?” I’ll update this review once they get back to me.

It would be folly to write off Regicide as a WH40K themed take on the Battlechess. Regicide’s strength is found in its ability to iterate on Western civilization’s most iconic tabletop game. Regardless of if a person fancies themselves a chess enthusiast or a master-level player, they will find Regicide to be a welcoming experience.


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Movie Review: Interstellar

The chances are good that many of you will disagree with this review. In a world where Guardians of the Galaxy is 91% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, I’m sure Christopher Nolan’s clumsy and ill-paced homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey will seem like Shakespeare to some. I guess we just want different things out of movies.

I don’t know why so many critics and movie goers line-up to defend this movie. Perhaps, people are afraid to criticize Interstellar for fear of being seen as stupid. But after enduring nearly three agonizing hours of wibble posing as “hard” science fiction, I feel no such fear. Interstellar is a largely dumb movie. One might only be tricked into thinking Interstellar is smart because it manages to puff up its chest and oversell itself in the opening act.

In deference to what the movie does right, the first thirty minutes are reasonably interesting. Mr. Nolan envisions a chilling vision for the future; it’s a world where food scarcity is the consequence of a new form of bacteria that sucks up oxygen and produces nitrogen in its wake. Human labour and ingenuity are redirected toward practical affairs, like farming. History books are rewritten to facilitate a world where we look inward rather than upward. All of this is quite interesting. However, I hasten to call it good storycraft as Nolan takes half an hour to do what I’ve summed up in a paragraph. Space may be vast, but my patience is not.

Pacing, or a lack thereof, becomes one of the things which utterly saps the life out of this movie. Where most movies have a three act structure, Interstellar has five acts. Two of them are worth watching. The other three are a monument to the fact that nobody involved in the production would dare take a red pen to Mr. Nolan’s bloated script. In so much as Interstellar wants to be a story about astronauts facing an impossible task on the other side of the galaxy, it’s also firmly rooted in a human interest story set on Earth. Where the latter should have been left on the editing room floor, Nolan makes the story on Earth run parallel to the story in space. While some, no doubt, found the leitmotif of cause, effect, and causality to be clever and thoughtful, I found it little more than a circle jerk.

And I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking that I’m about to get on my high horse about the time dilation planet. I’m not. I could easily spend a few hundred words breaking down the insane pseudo-science Nolan uses to justify this sequence. But I’d rather not insult the intelligence of my readers, who no doubt saw the pseudo-science for the garbage that it is. Instead, I’ll speak to the cause behind the cause. The time dilation planet is the inelegant solution to the problem of aging up the astronaut McConaughey’s one-dimensional pre-teen daughter character into a two-dimensional Deus ex Machina. You’ll pardon my loud farting noise.

Likewise, Interstellar rates as an unsophisticated affair as it is entirely predictable. The screenplay merits a modification of the Chekhov’s Gun rule: if a greaseball astronaut asks about using a black hole to travel back in time in the second act, then said greaseball astronaut must use the black hole to travel back in time in the fourth act. Mr. Nolan, I know nobody else will say this to you, so I will. If the writing is as obvious a landing signal officer on an aircraft carrier, then you’re not really foreshadowing, you are telegraphing. Telegraphing is boring.

Though it is de rigueur to place Interstellar alongside 2001, I won’t insult the late Stanley Kubrick’s work with any further comparisons. Quite honestly, the more accurate analogue for Interstellar is Disney’s 1979 homage to pseudo-science, The Black Hole. Both movies feature sentient robots, mad scientists, and a weakly written ending that presumes to send people “into” a black hole; wherein, something greater than being crushed to death awaits intrepid American astronauts. Interstellar is not high-concept, nor is it a thoughtful art film. Interstellar is, quite simply, a bad movie. Pretty as it may be to behold, it’s got nothing going on between the ears.


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The Bang Bots of Dawn

Last week the tech world latched on to the story of Pepper the robot. This particular product is a four-foot tall amalgamation of code and plastic. Its main selling feature is the “ability” to ape human emotions. The coming and going of this overpriced toy likely wouldn’t have made any waves were it not for a certain stipulation in the robot’s terms of service, which nobody reads anyway. You could literally include entire pages of Mein Kampf in the iTunes terms and conditions and people would still click, “I agree.”

People who buy the Pepper model have to promise not to use it in any sexual fashion. Robot ethicists, a profession which is actually a thing and not somebody cospaying an Asimov character, were quick to respond to this demand. Some of these aforementioned advocates went so far as to even suggest that humanity should ban the production of any sex robot. After reading those words, I felt a need to review some collective stupidity.

Pepper the robot isn’t Mr. Data, HAL 9000, Jude Law in AI, or any other sort of sentient creature. It’s a pile of code meant to trick people into thinking there’s more to it than meets the eye. It’s not a Cylon; it doesn’t have a plan. It’s an $1800 conversation starter for assholes who want to start conversations with, “Have you met my robot? I’m not allowed to have it jerk me off/finger blast me.” Pepper is no more worthy of an ethical debate than the average dishwasher.

But Adam, one day we might have thinking machines, and they will judge us on how we treat other machines.

One, shut up. Two, that’s what you’re worried about? You’re worried about a thinking machine passing judgement on how we treat toasters and coffee makers? If we’re worried about being judged as a species, surely the collected history of human-on-human violence is a more pressing concern. I’m sooo sure the thinking machines will come down on the side of humanity when they get to the fall of Carthage, the German Crusade of 1096, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the holocaust, and Stalinist Russia. All those things totally take a back seat to Dwayne from New Jersey sticking his dick into a mannequin with a vibrating vagina.

But Adam, robots can’t consent, somebody has to speak for them.

Oh go fuck yourself. Literally. I want you to go to a sex shop, because clearly you haven’t been to one in a while, buy an implement, and then see what sort of consent you can get out of a glass dildo or a fleshlight. And if the idea of securing consent from a tool before partaking in some vigorous masturbation seems laughable to you, then you now know how I feel whenever some self-appointed tech guru talks about getting consent from a sex robot. Consent is a non-issue apropos of things; things get used and then run through the dishwasher on pots and pans.

Even if we take the concept of sex bots to the inevitable point of interactive human-form androids, consent remains a non-issue. Assuming artificial general intelligence existed in concert with the capacity for androids that don’t weigh 700 pounds, why would you install an AGI in a sex bot? It would be like putting an internal combustion engine on a toilet. One could do it, and it might make the toilet flush at supersonic speeds, but is it really necessary to make the best toilet? Engineering is about functionality and efficiency. Putting an AI in a sex bot might be functional, but it’s inefficient and over-engineers the end product. Since a masturbatory aid, albeit one in human form, has but a handful of purposes, there’s no need to over engineer it with a sense of self.

The only remotely interesting thing to come out of this debate is the notion that sex robots would be focused on satisfying male pleasure, thus further objectifying the female form. Once again I find myself wondering if the people putting forward these debates have ever been inside a sex shop, or if they’ve spend any time online at all.

Explain to me how access to female sex robots would somehow create more objectification of women. Not only do we have near-limitless access to conventional porn online, but also people on-demand through the “camgirl” economy. Nor should we leave flesh and blood sex workers out of this discussion. If a person wants to watch another person or people, or buy the company of another person or people, then the means to do so already exist. Sex robots are just as likely to increase the value flesh and blood sex workers as they are to diminish it.

Oh, now I’ve gone and done it. I’ve turned a rant about sex bots, something people are quick to get judgemental about, into a rant about sex workers, something people are equally quick to get judgemental about. Isn’t that an interesting symmetry.

I’m inclined to think that the entirety of the “sex robots (will/should) have rights” discourse isn’t really about sex robots. It’s about people having problems with sex workers. Since the governments courts of Western nations are taking steps to ensure that sex workers are actually treated like people, maladroit assholes need a new anti-sex mascot. And what better way to drum up the ire of humanity’s lowest common denominator than suggesting technology, a thing idiots naturally fear, is going to lead to the breakdown of society and the enabling of pedophiles and sex pests.

Sex doesn’t lead to the downfall of society. Masturbation, with or without a robot’s help, won’t lead to the devaluing of people. The devaluing of people by governments, police, and popular opinion leads to the devaluing of people. One need only read the news to see we are doing a fantastic job of that in North America without the help of prostate tickling robots.

And now, a compilation of robots going falling down.

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First Impressions: The Last Man on Earth Season 2

The first season of Will Forte’s apocalypse comedy, The Last Man on Earth, fell flat with me. Other than the occasional sight gag, I found the show to be painfully unfunny and a salute to the worst parts of the human experience. To wit, Forte’s character, Phil Miller, was an asshole. Granted, two years of being alone might turn anybody into a bit of a self-involved narcissist. Yet the more I tried to give Phil Miller the benefit of the doubt, the more the writing let me down. On Sunday night, the season two premiere of The Last Man on Earth gave me a reason to think the series might have grown up a bit.

There’s a substantial change in town between the first and second season. Though some might chalk it up to a long arc of emotional growth for the Phil character, I’m more inclined to think that the writers realized they had reached the limit of what they could do with an emotionally stunted prick as the main character. The first episode of season two sees Phil and Carol (Kristen Schaal) remarried and looking for a new home in the ruins of America. True to form, this is no somber road trip. In fact, the light hearted, “I can do anything I want” gimmicks actually land as something other than tone deaf slapstick.

Sure, it’s supremely goofy watching Phil and Carol use an F-117 stealth fighter as a pickup truck, but now the whimsy isn’t poisoned by Phil being an asshole. The kiddie pool margarita is as gross (or genius, I can’t really tell) a concept as ever, but seeing Carol in it with Phil gives the show the warmth it was otherwise missing. And weird as it is to invoke two adults bathing in a party drink as a symbol for the rest of the show, I can think of no better tableau for the episode. Phil and Carol are now, finally, both in it together.

Phil is still a bit irascible. Carol is still a bit of a nitpicking weirdo, but now both characters are in on the joke. Carol isn’t simply the wet blanket half of the odd couple. The duo might revel in congressional themed puns while having sex in the White House, but the weird coitus is no longer a tool for laughing at Carol. The Last Man on Earth is finally letting me care about Phil and Carol as equals.

What’s really remarkable is how effortlessly the writing is able to sell me on Phil and Carol as actual people in a somewhat unconventional marriage. Carol’s art book is mobilized as an effortless tool to fill in the missing parts of the couple’s story. It catches the audience up on their past, while also injecting some much needed humanity into both characters.

From where I left it last season, The Last Man on Earth seems almost unrecognizable. No longer will I be tuning in to hate watch the show. Twenty-two near flawless minutes of comedy has me wanting to see Phil and Carol reunited in the next episode. Likewise, my trust is restored that Phil, though still a bit of a jerk, isn’t going to jump at the first chance he gets to abandon Carol for someone more physically attractive.

Now the only question remains what role Jason Sudeikis will play as Phil’s astronaut brother. He’s not bad as the cut-away joke guy, but that gimmick will play itself out sooner rather than later.