Alien Invasion Archive

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Movie Review: American Warships

The slow painful death rattle that is October’s crawl through Netflix’s basement has finally come to an end. Rounding out the month is a movie like no other, unless you’ve seen Battleship or The Final Countdown. Yes it’s American Warships, a direct to DVD affair which blatantly attempts to cash in on some of Battleship’s fame conceptual recognition. Herein, writer-director Thunder (His name is actually Thunder) Levin, who has previously directed such cinematic masterpieces as Mutant Vampire Zombies from the ‘Hood and the 1992 classic Soulmates, tries very hard to convince the audience his movie isn’t set aboard a stationary floating museum in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Although I haven’t seen Battleship, I think it’s safe to say American Warships sets a different course in its Navy versus Aliens story telling. Why would I say such a thing? Because this movie is about five chrome toasters and one sexy blonde in a slinky dress away from being Battlestar Galactica, at least in techno-babble gimmickry.

Mario Van Peebles stars as Captain James Winston, skipper of the USS Iowa, a still-in-service World War Two era battleship. Winston, in the autumn of his career, is ferrying the Iowa from Korea (no idea why it was there) back to America where his ship will be turned into a museum. This will allow him to take up the quiet life of banging his intelligence officer, who looks to be about twenty five years his junior. The relationship is as contrived as it is creepy, but it doesn’t really come up until the third act. Even then, it’s more a hilarious non-starter for tension than an actual sub-plot.

Just as the Iowa is getting under way, the contemporary USS Enterprise and its carrier group come under attack from unknown assailants. It is a special sort of attack with the ability to shut down any piece of technology with integrated circuitry. The assault then escalates to bombardments of South Korean cities and coastal military installations, thus drawing America and China into a cold war via their respective Asian proxies. As seemingly the only Joint Chief in Washington, Predator and Arrested Development alumni Carl Weathers comes into play during these scenes as Lt. General Hugh McKraken. Wait, Seriously? Hugh McKraken? Not Phil McKraken? McKraken’s only function in this movie is to remind the audience about the consequences of high stakes brinksmanship. I can only assume Weathers was drawn to such a robust role because the producers let him take home all of the craft services leftovers.

 

Anyway, without extensive integrated circuitry, the Iowa is free to give chase to what it thinks is a North Korean stealth ship, which actually turns out to be an alien ship intent on using regional instability to provoke a nuclear war which will then allow the aliens to easily conquer the Earth.

Despite some shameless lifting from BSG’s playbook, I’ll admit that the concept behind the movie isn’t terrible. Nor is the acting uniquely objectionable. I’d say about 75% of the cast are trying really hard where 23% are trying a little too hard. The remaining 2% encompasses Carl Weathers, who in each of his scenes projects the subtle undertones of a man just roused from a nap after eating a big bowl of soup. What ruins American Warships, rendering it fit for the MST3K treatment, is the execution.

As much as I respect ambition in movie making, this film takes a grand scope to a place of absurdity. Case in point, long and wide shots of generic naval ships at sea combined with stock footage from various air shows do nothing mitigate the fact that the movie is principally filmed aboard a floating museum. Whenever the Iowa engages the alien “stealth ship” it primarily does so by firing its port side 5 inch guns, albeit with some bad CG overlaying the actual guns to simulate turret movement. Why not the starboard side batteries? Because there is no way to show them without breaking the “illusion” of a ship at sea. Though said “illusion” is hardly appreciable given the numerous shots which make it painfully obvious that the Iowa, which is actually the USS North Carolina, is docked during the entire film. Nowhere is this reality better seen than when the alien ship pulls an Enemy Below, jettisoning its garbage to simulate being sunk. The very next scene shows three sailors standing on a dock. The Iowa is supposed to be in the South Pacific, so where the hell are they going to find a dock?

While we’re on the subject of imaginary things, there’s nothing more hilarious than watching a bunch of actors crawl along the “hull” of an “invisible” ship. At one point the captain sends half of his SEAL team to try and take over the stealth ship, which can hide itself but not its wake. Picture this: a green screened sea background, blurred water spray effect in the foreground to hide the green boxes the actors are crawling on in lieu of actually building a set, and a bunch of guys doing bad mime in the middle. MIME! I understand the need to cut corners here and there, but of all the bad movies I’ve watched in my life I can’t remember one where the actors had to resort to mime because there was no budget for sets nor special effects.

If this movie had a bankroll beyond whatever tax credits the State of North Carolina confers for film production, I honestly think there could have been something to it. Granted, it needed an actual military historian as a consultant to fix a few glaring miscarriages against their spirit of faux-authenticity. One of the actors plays a history PhD in charge of the Iowa’s conversion to a museum, yet she doesn’t know the main guns of a battleship need 2000 pound crane loaded propellant cartridges to fire one of their shells. So I won’t claim there is a good movie amid the cat vomit that is American Warships, but I suspect an average one is waiting in the wings.

Should you fancy producing a homemade riff track with some friends, then American Warships is a prime target. Bad special effects, shameless over acting, and ample cheapo production gimmicks provide more than enough fodder for even the most inexperienced sarcastic robot wanna-be. Otherwise, this Battleship send-up is simply not worth anybody’s time.

American Warships

Written and Directed by Thunder Levin

Starring: Mario Van Peebles, Carl Weathers, and Johanna Watts


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Movie Review: Alien Armageddon

This must be what it was like to work on MST3K; it’s my birthday and I’m writing a review of a crappy movie. Ah well, let’s get our hands dirty with this week’s Netflix’s Basement entry Alien Armageddon.

Much like the other movies in this series of reviews, Alien Armageddon is a giant waste of time. Yet at some points it almost feels salvageable. One scene in particular, where we find out the aliens are genetically manipulating certain women into being perpetually pregnant with alien meatballs which are then fed to the other captives of the alien’s brutal regime, felt like something out of a really good episode of Tales from the Crypt or The Outer Limits. Unfortunately, enduring everything that precedes and follows this scene is a painful chore. This is a movie with about fifteen gun battles, but not a single squib pack to be found. All of the barrel flares and gunshot sounds are added in post-production. And on a scale of one to Terranova the blood splatter special effects and pew-pew gun sequences rate on par with the lowest budget SyFy original movie.

But at least the casting director managed to get Virginia Hey (Farscape, The Road Warrior) in the movie. Though Hey’s presence is almost comically short lived. After two scenes and what amounts to about four lines of dialogue her character is unceremoniously killed.

So what is this movie actually about? I honestly wish I knew. It’s as if the screenwriter, who is also the director, was drunk on homemade bathtub gin during the entire creative process. Nevertheless, I shall attempt to set this up for you.

There are aliens called the Nephilim. Despite walking around in bargain basement storm trooper armour, the Nephilim are blind space worm things. Imagine Stargate’s Goa’uld, only more low-rent. But wait, the Nephilim are actually Martians and they created humans eons ago to be their bodies…or something like that. The whole relationship is a pastiche of biblical appropriation and Panspermia that isn’t nearly as clever as the movie wants it to be. Anyway, the aliens decide to invade the Earth, as all aliens are wont to do. The Nephilim destroy every major city on our world except Los Angeles (this is where you groan because heavenly beings set the City of Angels as their seat of power). For some reason that makes absolutely no sense from a biological point of view, the Nephilim can only feed on a species containing their own DNA. So their invasion is a pretense for interplanetary take-out. The actual story, which does manage to insert itself between all the exposition, is about a group of people trying to break out of a Nephilim prison. In doing so, they kill all the aliens with the power of Deus ex Machina.

There’s also some sort of power struggle between rival castes of the invading aliens, but the dialogue therein is painfully opaque and utterly inconsistent. Since it has almost zero bearing on the story, I gave up on my attempts to bring order to said theatrical chaos.

At least I could laugh at The Dead Undead. Watching Alien Armageddon evoked the same “dear god I need scotch” feeling that I have when I mark a written-on-the-day-its-due undergraduate paper.

For example, don’t set the movie in Los Angeles when you can’t afford permits to shoot in LA. Rarely does a scene pass when Alien Armageddon neglects to remind its viewers the story is set in LA. But what do we see of LA? About sixty minutes of concrete walls inside a building which could be a partially completed condo unit.

Then there’s Alien Armageddon’s answer to every film maker’s great question: do I need to show one of my character’s embarking upon a post-chili night magnitude shit? The answer is no. Sure, gastrointestinal distress might be a symptom of having one’s DNA over written by alien meatballs. But there’s no way to take an actor, or his character, seriously when he’s making this face.

It's not so much an O face, but an S face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Similarly, if as a director you are going to have a character puking their guts out on-screen, the splashing sound of puke hitting the bottom of the toilet should be concurrent with the actor retching, not consecutive. Unless this movie was made by Mormons somebody on set should have known that.

Then there’s the over-the-shoulder camera work which has the back of one actor’s head obstructing the sight line on the focal character. And who could forget such Oscar worthy dialogue as “She’s acting,” “I’ve got cramp,” and “You gotta choke me, bro”. After enduring all of the above who’s going to notice the flagrant use of iPhones as alien scanning devices or convenient lesbianism to wake up an otherwise comatose audience?

Seriously, this movie should be a right of passage for would-be directors. If upon a first viewing the neophyte director can not find 85% of the things the movie did wrong, they don’t get to make their own movies.

Still, I can’t help but think that in the hands of better people Alien Armageddon might have had some redeeming quality to it. Terrible as it is, most of its problems connect to a sense of creative control which presumed too highly upon its own cleverness. The premise is okay, but the execution is just a god awful mess.

Alien Armageddon

Writen, Directed, and Produced by: Neil Johnson

Starring: Katharine McEwan, Don Scribner, and Rochelle Vallese


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XCOM: Pure Joy for Creative Types and Weekend Warriors

What those not familiar with XCOM, Firaxis and 2K Games’ reboot of Microprose’s classic turn based strategy game X-Com, need to understand is that it’s not just a game. XCOM/X-Com is about building an internal meta narrative over top of the game’s actual story. Much of this occurs through the simple act of naming one’s soldiers after friends, family, acquaintances, and people you stalk on twitter. Allow me to demonstrate.

This was my XCOM A-Team.

Resplendent in their armour, little did they know not all of them would return.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ken Scholtens, Amos Yu, and Matt Moore are all friends of mine. Granted none of them volunteered to have their names usurped but such is life. NB: All of them have said they’re good with being used as examples for the benefit of this post.

As a team representing the Earth’s first and last line of defence against an alien invasion, they had all survived one mission together and made at least one alien kill. Operation “Lazy Dirge” would be their second manoeuvre as a squad, each an experienced “Squaddie” with a specialized role.

But war is a nasty thing, especially when you’re trying to secure a crashed UFO.

What follows is a narrative replay of an actual mission I took this squad on within the game.

One of the little grey bastards, the scientists back at the base call them Sectoids, got off a lucky shot on Amos, who died instantly from plasma burns to the face. This sent Adam into a panic. He managed to cut down the Sectoid with a .50 caliber sniper round to the head. The extraterrestrial’s green blood splattered as Adam’s vision tunneled on the tableau of death. Screaming for his mother, he curled into the fetal position.

Without sniper cover, two Sectoids were able to bum rush Ken’s left flank. Matt was on overwatch, but his snap shot against the lead Sectoid went wide. Ken tried to pull back to better cover, but he caught a plasma bolt in the stomach as he was retreating. It was all Matt could do to toss a grenade at the oncoming aliens, avenging his fallen comrade.

The explosion killed one Sectoid and left another wounded.

Finally, Adam was able to pull himself together. He took out the injured Sectoid in a single shot. With his head back in the game, he flanked around the burning wreck of the crashed UFO. There was only one grey-back left and he meant to catch it in a crossfire. The first sniper round went wide, his vision still not yet returned to normal. By then Matt charged to catch the alien out of cover. With one burst from his assault rifle, the bug-eyed grey squawked and collapsed.

The battle was won. The wreck, secured. The techs back at base were overjoyed to find an intact alien power supply waiting for their study. Various council nations were already offering to buy the captured alien technology. Still, it came at the cost of two lives too many.

There was only one thing left to do, I had to tell Ken that he was dead.

me:  Bad news.

Ken: No…Don’t tell me you got me killed already.

me: It was at a crashed UFO site, you got bum rushed by a pair of mind linked Sectoids.

Ken: F***!

F*** you!

How many men must you kill?

me: F*** you, man. I lost good people on that mission. Good men that might be alive today if the council nations recognized the threat that the invaders pose. Instead I have to send out green boys with pop guns and write letters to their parents when they come back in body bags.

Ken: Shame on you, commander! Shame on you!

Did these valiant soldiers know what you were sending them into?

me: They all knew the risks, and they all knew they were fighting for something greater than themselves.

Ken: None of them signed up for these suicide missions that you are sending them on.

me: What other choice do I have? Let the world fall into panic because of all these abductions and UFO flybys? One life on the battlefield buys a million people still showing up for work tomorrow. Tell me that’s not worth it.

Ken: We are going to have a lot of fun with this aren’t we?

me: Yes we are.

Since then I’ve refined my technique for delivering bad news. What comes next is a letter sent to another of my friends after his character died in the line of duty.

Dear Mr. Noon

It is with a heavy heart that I speak to you today. Last night at
approximately 6:22pm local time, your avatar, Corporal Chris Noon,
died in the line of duty on a mission in Japan.

Chris was a valued member of my team. He was an inspiration to others
around him. When things got tough, and lesser soldiers would panic,
Chris would stay steady and do his job. In the short time that he was
with the organization, he defined himself by his leadership and
professionalism. In doing so earned the respect of his squad mates
and his superiors. His absence will be sorely missed.

As you have received council clearance for classified information, I
can tell you that Chris died doing what we all thought to be
impossible. Chris breached the interior of an intact UFO. He held the
line, buying time for his teammates to secure their compromised
positions. His sacrifice was the turning point in an operation that
would have seen far greater casualties were it not for his sacrifice.
I know this knowledge will give you small comfort, yet in your grief
you must never allow yourself to believe his death was meaningless.
Chris died protecting his friends and safeguarding all nations of this
planet from a threat it has never before known.

Please know my thoughts are with you during this time.

Yours,

A. Shaftoe, Commander, XCOM

There are no saved games in XCOM: no mulligans, do-overs, rollbacks or pleas for “just one more try”. Consequences are real. The game moves forward. People die and stay dead. That’s just how it works. Yes, there is an option to turn off permadeath, but that’s not my bag. As Captain Jack Harkness once said, “Now we carry on.”

If you’re a gamer, then likely you played the original X-Com and these stories are all the review I need to give you.

If you’re a gamer and count yourself creative, you’re welcome. If the game doesn’t suck up enough of your time, the hours spent writing in a world that is somewhere between fan-fic and original work certainly will.

And if you just want to kill aliens, blow shit up, and not worry about all the drama, XCOM’s got you covered there as well.

XCOM is a “must have” on all counts.

Finally, if anybody wants to indulge me and volunteer their name and likeness for my squad, I can promise you screen shots and a nice “we regret to inform you” letter when you eventually go KIA.


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Vigilo Confido: Translating X-Com’s New Motto

Latin, despite what people might tell you, is a very cool language. Consider Napoleon Bonaparte, a Corsican who came to power in France and from there conquered Europe, had the Latin phrase Ultima Ratio Regum (The final argument of kings) inscribed on one of his cannons. Somehow saying the same thing in French – Le derniner raison du rois seems less impressive. In developing a “re-imagined” version of the PC classic X-Com: Enemy Unknown Firaxis Games and publisher 2K Games have rebranded the titular extraterrestrial research and defence organization with a cool new logo and words befitting the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

Vigilo Confido. What does it mean?

Well that depends who you ask. X-Com lead designer Jake Soloman probably has one definition in mind. The trick with Latin is that there are usually ten meanings for a single word. Naturally, you might ask how anybody in the Roman empire ever understood what they were saying within such an ill defined system, especially when Rome’s biggest cultural influence, Hellenic Greece, had a language where there were never less than ten words to express a single concept. Much of a sentence’s meaning in Latin is tied to a grammatical system which is in some ways far more specific than what we have in English or French. Also, a lot of understanding Latin has to do with context. So let’s break things down.

The first word, Vigilo is probably the easiest to parse, though not at one in the morning when I first started trying to figure this out. For some reason I assumed both of the words to be nouns acting as an indirect objects. You can see the proof on the Page of Reviews’ facebook page.

Latin is all about the verbs. “Start with the verb,” my Latin professor would always say when we were stuck on translations. Vigilo looks to be a first person singular, present tense, active voice conjugation of the root verb Vigilare (To monitor, to guard, to keep an eye on). Given the nature of X-Com’s work, monitoring and responding in force to alien incursions on the Earth, which is represented by wire frame lines of latitude and longitude in the south half of the patch, Vigilo is probably best translated as “I am watchful.” A literal or “Barking Dog” translation would probably be closer to “I am watching” but mottos are meant to be somewhat more artistic in their meaning.

Figuring out Confido proves a bit more of a challenge. The simplest translation for the infinitive Confidere is “to trust”. But X-Com’s mandate is anything but trusting; they are suspicious and questioning by design. Though, I suppose confido could be read as I am trustworthy, but that seems too much like something a person puts on a cover letter, not a motto. Other definitions include: to have confidence in, to take refuge in, to rely upon. Now we are talking. The safe translation would be “I am relied upon.” As mottos go, “I am watchful. I am relied upon,” is pretty solid. I, however, want to take it a step farther. To rely upon something is to deem it necessary. Granted it is a bit of a stretch, but why not translate Confido as “I am necessary.” It certainly fits with the theme of the game: a council of nations activating an international paramilitary organization as Humanity’s last line of defence.

And this is why Latin is such a fun language. What should ostensibly be a simple bit of translation turns into a mad dance to find a best fit solution. There’s also this as well…

 

However, as a bottom line I’d have to say that the best translation for the phrase Vigilo Confido is I am watchful. I am relied upon. I really like “I am necessary,” but it’s too much of a conceptual leap. If by chance somebody knows of a precedent to justify “I am necessary” as the ideal solution, I’m all ears.

X-Com: Enemy Unknown releases October 9, 2012 on PC, X-Box 360 and PS3.


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Novella Review: Alien Apocalypse: Genesis

Alien Apocalypse: Genesis is the third release in UK author Dean Giles’ series of alien invasion novellas. The second published story, Alien Apocalypse: The Hunger is actually prequel to the first story Alien Apocalypse: The Storm. The Storm, which I had the pleasure of reviewing when it first came out, introduces readers to the series’ protagonist Leon Weber, an ex-convict sentenced to four years in prison when he inadvertently killed the man who had just murdered his wife. Two weeks before Leon’s release, a comet burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately for humanity, the comet housed an alien plant that quickly takes seed on Earth and begins Terraforming our world and all animal life there upon. Genesis begins immediately where The Storm ends; Leon and his son Elliot are intent on finding a way to weaponize a stockpile of crude oil, seemingly the only thing that kills the alien plant.

When I first reviewed The Storm, I likened the efficiency of the plant invasion to that of the Martians in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. This story, which sees father and son walking down stretches of abandoned roads in the south of England amid widespread environmental destruction, echoes a science fiction take on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Thankfully, Giles’ work is not nearly as gloomy or pessimistic as that of Mr. McCarthy’s.

Where an argument could be made that The Storm is perhaps too heavy in its world building, Genesis offers much more in the way of a focused narrative. Scenes alternate between Leon’s first person narration and that of the other worldly consciousness that is driving the invasion. For the first time in this series, Leon is at a disadvantage compared to the reader. While I initially thought that the alien perspective tipped a bit too much of the author’s hand with respect to the series’ eventual endgame, I can not deny that the extra knowledge, on my part, added something special to the overall experience. Toward the end of Genesis I almost caught myself yelling at Leon for not figuring out what I already deduced. That sort of reader-character engagement is worth an extra scant paragraph or two of exposition.

Despite being titled Alien Apocalypse, Genesis explores themes a reader would expect to find contained within a standard human apocalypse. In a scene that once again finds common ground with The Road, Elliot insists on leaving a group of thugs with some food after their failed attempt to rob him and Leon. When the father-son team discover survivors that appear to be slavers it is Elliot who insists on a rescue mission, while Leon is content to move on and leave the people to their fate.

There’s a moral absolutism to the child character that is annoying to the point where I want him to get dissolved by the green alien moss. Yet Elliot’s altruism is a necessary tool in stripping away some of the lustre in Leon’s nature. In fact, Leon takes a few distinct steps toward being an anti-hero within Genesis. Even though keeping Elliot safe is at the forefront of Leon’s actions, he’s not beyond threatening, almost bullying, behaviour when provoked to anger. When a rescued slave offers herself sexually to Leon, his moralizing about respect for his dead wife’s memory melts away just a little too quickly. Leon proudly reflects that he will never become a user of people, but he is at the very least an opportunist. The personality shift is, however, necessary to maintaining the story’s integrity. Without some pliability in his personal morality, Leon would be little more than a super heroic caricature. With the exception of The Avengers, aliens and super heroes don’t often mix.

Problems with Alien Apocalypse: Genesis emerge not in the story, but in its narration. While Giles has created a fantastic story, he is at times guilty of playing “show and tell” with his readers. In one particular scene Leon and Elliot are arguing over a course of action. Built on strong dialogue and scant narrative details, the father-son animosity is palpable. But where the paragraph should end it goes on to point out that Elliot was getting sarcastic with his father, despite the lad’s obvious attitude. This game of “show and tell”, which I think speaks more toward the author’s concerns for clarity rather than a presumption about the audience’s ability to grasp the context of a situation, happens periodically throughout the novella. It’s not a deal breaker, but it is noticeable.

As a 19,000 word novella, Alien Apocalypse: Genesis is priced quite well at $2 USD. While there are some obvious motifs in play from the likes of Cormac McCarthy and Jack Finney, Genesis is a well paced and creative despite some shortcomings in the prose.

Alien Apocalypse: Genesis is written by Dean Giles. It is available as an e-book from TWB Press.


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The Daily Shaft: How bad is The Darkest Hour?

I don’t want to be that guy who dwells on the previous year, but there was no way I was letting The Darkest Hour pass without comment.

Perhaps it was the twelve year old single malt holiday cheer flowing through my blood stream, but the first commercial I saw for The Darkest Hour looked fascinating.  People running from aliens in Moscow; what sci-fi/horror/survival fan wouldn’t perk up at that pitch?  Two days later  I saw another trailer that had Emile Hirsch wearing what looked like a low rent Soviet Navy take on Ghostbuster’s positron glider.  That’s when I got suspicious.

Unless the central characters are those nerds from The Big Bang Theory, there’s no way that your average person is going to have the physics or engineering know how to build an DIY energy weapon.  Given that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief long enough to get through the trailer, I decided to see what some other critics had to say about this movie.  The results are not encouraging.  In fact, I think that The Darkest Hour is a dark horse candidate for worst sci-fi action movie of 2011, right up there with Battle LA or Skyline.

Jeannette Catsoulis asks in her New York Times review, “…how slovenly is it to use invisible aliens? If you’re going to tease us with nothing but pinwheels of light for three-quarters of the film, you’d better have one heck of a reveal up your sleeve. But if all you have is the equivalent of exploding garden gnomes, then your problems are greater than a disposable cast and a filming style as flat as the color palette.”

Catsoulis also points out that The Darkest Hour’s screen writer, Jon Spaiths, is credited as one of the two writers for Ridley Scott’s upcoming Prometheus. Live in fear, boys and girls.

Mark Olsen, in his review for the LA Times, takes aim at questionable direction and sub-par performances from the actors. “Director Chris Gorak previously made the effective, low-budget, horror-thriller Right at Your Door and in making this move to a splashy, bigger film his instincts for character have perhaps been overwhelmed by the demands of a larger production. Capable and compelling performers like Hirsch and Thirlby seem left to their own devices to make some connection with the material.”

In a review for the Boston Globe, Joel Brown also targets bad character development.  “Hirsch, Minghella, Thirlby, and Taylor resemble dollar-store knockoffs of Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, and Nicole Kidman.”

Brown also poo poos The Darkest Hour for a shameless attempt to connect its alien invasion to the 9/11 attacks. “Even though the movie is set in Moscow, some will be disturbed by the way it evokes 9/11 with abandoned cars, drifting ash, and collapsing buildings. There are even towers of fire and smoke, although this time they’re shooting upward, as the aliens take our electricity or minerals or whatever.”

True to form, Nathan Rabin on The Onion’s AV Club offers the most scathing review, also picking up on the movie’s prop plagiarism.  “The Darkest Hour reeks of desperation even before the cast straps on what looks like homemade versions of Ghostbusters proton-packs and go out on the offensive against the bad guys. The Darkest Hour is a film utterly devoid of merit, a dreary sci-fi slog so tedious even its own actors seem bored. Who can blame them? They’re in a film that tries to make a variation on static cling terrifying.”

Amid the cutting reviews, I managed to find one critic who actually enjoyed the picture.  Josh Tyler over at Giant Freakin Robot said The Darkest Hour is, “a notch above every alien invasion movie released in the past two years, outside of Attack the Block.

That’s not saying much considering the steaming pile of Rhino crap that is the last two years in sci-fi action.  His bottom line is that “…director Chris Gorak is good enough to keep his film entertaining, if not exactly engaging, throughout. The Darkest Hour is worth a look.”

I’m not usually one to ignore a movie because of its trailers or critical reviews, but in this case I think I’ll make an exception.  Thirty seconds of this movie was more than enough to convince me that it’s not worth my time or money.  Of course, if somebody wants to pay for my ticket I’ll gladly eviscerate or defend (high unlikely from the look of it) this movie.

NB: Tomorrow’s post will be the 200th post to the Page of Reviews.  Not quite sure what I’ll do for it, but I’m sure it will be something interesting.


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Short Story Review: Alien Apocalypse – The Storm

Summary Judgement:  It’s incredibly difficult to pull off an innovative alien invasion story.  Alien Apocalypse manages that task in just under ten thousand words.

Written by: Dean Giles

Alien invasion stories are an interesting sub-genre of science fiction.  They compare quite nicely to high fantasy in that the seminal entries were written about a century ago, and in that time we haven’t really come up with any interesting ways to divert from the formula.  Consider that Independence Day is for all intents and purposes War of the Worlds only bigger and bloated with American jingoism.  Despite the ninety-eight years that separate the two stories, the ending is still the same:  all the armies of man couldn’t defeat the invaders were it not for a humble virus; a computer virus with respect to the latter but the conceit remains a constant.  Therefore in evaluating an alien invasion story only one all-important question comes to my mind: Does it do something new?  Alien Apocalypse: The Storm, most certainly does.

The story, though a discrete unit on its own, represents a first episode in a much larger narrative.  Yet it would be mistake to assume that this is a blasé introduction.  There’s no filler or extraneous back story as the plot shifts between the story’s two principle characters. Elliot Weber is an eleven-year-old living with his grandparents in the English countryside.  Leon Weber, Elliot’s father, is serving out the last few months of a four year prison sentence.  For reasons that are both deceptive and poignant, Elliot has not seen his father since Leon’s incarceration.  In spite of the physical isolation, the two maintain a relationship through phone calls, email and letters.  At the beginning of the story, their most recent correspondence involves a comet that passes very near to the Earth.

My first thought when I read about the comet: “Great.  Here come the tripods, heat rays, and black gas.”

I’m convinced that Mr. Giles took this approach just so he could have a laugh at the expense of readers like myself who jumped to a false conclusion.

Either by accident or design, the close pass of the comet deposits a form of semi-sentient plant life on the Earth. Excreting acid and multiplying at exponential rates, the moss eats everything that it comes into contact with.  Earth and all its life upon it have no natural defence against the invading life form.  In that sense these “aliens” are more akin to the virus from The Andromeda Strain than any sort of grey alien.  Of course, the green moss assimilates biological life with such terrifying efficiency as to make Andromeda look like a bad case of the sniffles.  At this point, I could draw a line between the red weeds that H.G. Welles’ Martians used to terraform the Earth.  However those plants were nowhere near as pernicious as the green moss and only took root, pardon the pun, as a consequence of tripods and war machines.

After only a few days of exposure to our planet’s biosphere, the green moss has brought civilization, or at least England, to an absolute ruin.  Leon wakes up in his solitary confinement cell thinking that the prisoners are rioting only to find that society has collapsed in around him.  From there, the plot is rather straight forward; Elliot must survive the encroaching moss long enough for his father to rescue him.

I will admit that at first I found both of the characters to be a little archetypal.  Granted invoking familiar archetypes is necessary in a story that very quickly moves from everyday life to a post-apocalyptic environment.  While Elliot remains little more than a goal for his father throughout the story, Leon’s personality develops quite nicely beyond the cliché of an ex-military ex-con with a heart of gold.  In fact, by the time the story was done I felt genuinely connected to Leon as a character.

There are also hints of environmental and colonizing force motifs at play within the story.  It begins with Leon’s attempts to maintain his sense of self within the brutal environment of Her Majesty’s Prison Wormwood Scrubs.  The metaphor continues with the nature of the green moss as a literal colonizing force upon the Earth.  In both instances an environmental force is acting upon a pre-existing system to forcibly convert it into something made in the former’s own image.  Since the grand narrative is still very much in its nascent phase, the over arcing ideas remain somewhat undeveloped.  However, the seeds have clearly been planted for some interesting extended metaphors in subsequent editions of the series.

Overall, Alien Apocalypse deals with what I call the “Welles Paradox” (Where the capacity for narrative depth within an alien invasion story is proportional to the efficiency of the invasion) by destroying the world and then turning his characters loose within it.  This setting results in an immediate empathy with the story’s adult protagonist as he embarks on a routine but wholly accessible quest.  The nature of the story is focused enough to keep a reader interested while maintaining a natural potential for serialization without feeling pulpy.  I for one can’t wait to see what Mr. Giles come up with next.

Overall score: +3

You can buy yourself a copy of Alien Apocalypse: The Storm as well as reading its free prequel story at TWB Press.


1

Movie Review: Cowboys and Aliens

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Screenplay by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and Steve Oedekerk

Starring: Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde, Clancy Brown and Sam Rockwell

Alien exploitation of Earth’s natural resources as a metaphor for the white conquest of Native American cultures. A blending of the American Western and Science Fiction themes of utopian visions, including the sacrifices needed to achieve them. An eye-popping cinematic blend of science fiction’s wondrous visuals and the sweeping vistas of a Western.

Cowboys & Aliens is none of these things.

What is it is? A fun romp. Just don’t think too much about it.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you know the story. Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with no memory and a mysterious bracelet on his wrist. Making his way to a small town, he gets in trouble with the law and the local cattle baron Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Aliens attack, stealing people by lassoing them into their flying ships. Able to track a downed pilot, the town’s people set off to get back their loved ones. Along the way we learn Jake’s past and what the aliens want. (And, of course, how they’re intermixed.) There’s a big fight, the good guys win (but not without sacrifice), and Jake is able to resolve his conflicts with Dolarhyde and the law.

Jon Favreau handles direction very well, presenting a large cast of characters we can easily keep track of, injecting humour without forcing it, and presenting big, fun action scenes. Daniel Craig is solid as Jake, carrying off an American accent, but is basically James Bond as an Old West outlaw. Harrison Ford, though, turns what could have been a one-dimensional foil for Jake into a flawed, complex character. First presented as a ruthless Civil War officer turned ruthless cattle baron, through Ford we see a man scarred by war, who detests violence but understands its need, and is driven by distrust and racism borne from experience, not an evil heart. In this way, Craig and Ford do for Cowboys & Aliens what Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey did for Reign of Fire — turn a straight-to-DVD movie into something better.

But that something better is a sci-fi / western mash-up romp. If you give the story too much thought, it falls apart.

First is the writing team: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and Steve Oedekerk. Too many hands on a script ruins it. While as a team Fergus & Otsby have credits for Children of Men, seeing Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof—who brought us Star Trek, Transformers and Lost—had me thinking “Hmm, questionable science and promises of a larger mythology that will never be paid off.”

Mission accomplished.

The science is abysmal. The aliens are large, fast brutes with pointed talons for fingers. They roar and growl, eager to engage in hand-to-talon combat where they spear or bite their enemies. Only a few use the energy weapon we see Jake using. We learn the aliens view humans like insects and underestimate them. I might swat one fly, but I’ll turn on the bug zapper for a swarm.  Wholesale swatting hardly seems befitting of beings that could construct a craft capable of interstellar travel.

And while Jake can’t miss with his weapon, the aliens never come close to hitting Jake. Not to mention how could a human operate a device with some kind of biological interface that’s designed for a biology from another planet?

Then there’s a unique physical trait the alien’s have that makes no evolutionary sense, especially the vulnerability it exposes them to.

Finally, the aliens’ ship takes off and (we have to assume) lands vertically, propelled by solid or liquid fuel. Not anti-grav propulsion or some mysterious blue, glowing engines—red and yellow flame. The space shuttle, a relatively light weight craft for its size, requires considerable external fuel tanks to launch into orbit. There’s no way the ship we see in Cowboys & Aliens could travel interstellar distances and land and take off from a planetary gravity well.

OK, let’s leave the science behind. What about plot?

Why do the aliens abduct people? We don’t know. Something about studying our weaknesses. But a few specimens would do the trick. No need for dozens. I didn’t get this.

So why do the aliens blow up the town as we see in the trailer? Um… no idea.

Why are the aliens on Earth? To take our gold, which is as valuable to them as it is to us. I’m willing to buy that. But there’s something about these aliens being scouts. Unless they are destroyed, we learn, more aliens will arrive and wipe out the Earth. You know, I would think that scouts NOT returning would attract more attention.

Something we don’t see in the trailers is a great visual hearkening back to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But it’s never revisited or even explained. It might not have been the aliens at all. Maybe in the DVD extras?

Not to mention some plot annoyances. Like Jake riding off just before the final battle to search for the remains of his gang (even saying how hard it was to find them) and convince them to join the fight. All in the time it takes to have a conversation back at the aliens’ ship. Guess the Great Plains aren’t that great.

Or a tender moment as a character dies in the midst of the big battle. As the two characters say their good-byes, we don’t hear any explosions or see rampaging aliens, making me think the chaotic battle was over. Nope. A moment later, we cut back to the battle still in progress.

In the end, Cowboys & Aliens is not awful, but not great. In 6 months, you’ll forget about it.

Unfortunately for series creator Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, unlike Sin City, The Walking Dead or Kick-Ass, this movie doesn’t make me interested in the comic book from which it came.

Overall Score: +1.5

Many thanks to Ken Berndt and The Comic Book Shoppe for the free pass.

Want to see more from Matt Moore?  Make sure to check out his Aurora Award Nominated short story, Touch the Sky, They Say.


3

Television Review: Falling Skies

Summary Judgement:  Despite the Spielberg touch, Falling Skies is an underachieving and exposition heavy plod through the familiar gimmicks of an alien invasion story.

Starring: Noah Wyle, Moon Bloodgood, Drew Roy and Will Patton

There’s a lot to say about Falling Skies, and not much of it is complimentary.  While the show does have its own unique flaws, I must, for the sake of fairness, point out what I perceive to be the near impossibility of telling a good alien invasion story.

The issue at hand is what I call the Wells Paradox: wherein, the capacity for narrative depth within the invasion is inversely proportional to the efficiency of said invasion.  Consider your average alien invader: they have mastered not only space flight but also space militarization.  Let us then assume that somebody within that alien civilization figured out that it is better to attack your enemy from higher ground.  Rather than using starships for low altitude energy weapon bombardment (Independence Day), deploying ground forces to pacify population centres (Battle LA), or establishing a diplomatic mission as a cover for nefarious deeds (V), why not sit in orbit and bombard the Earth with kinetic weapons?  No need to waste energy and resources on lasers or fusion bombs when throwing rocks from the asteroid belt will kick up enough dust to kill all the humans.

H.G. Wells, for whom I have named the paradox, found the only workable solution to the conundrum: let the aliens win.  In War of the Worlds the Martians kicked humanity’s collective ass through use of biological weapons.  The depth within the story is limited to one man who embodies humanity’s perpetual retreat from the aliens.  Only the deus ex machina of the common cold saved Wells’ protagonist from suicide in the face of an impossible situation.

Unfortunately, mass suicide and wholesale destruction does not translate well to television or film – unless you want to draw immediate comparisons to H.G. Wells or Battlestar Galactica.  Therein do we find the quintessential problem with Falling Skies. In order to create a series that has some staying power, the alien invaders, known only as Skitters or Cooties, haven’t really planned out the best invasion.  After deploying an electromagnetic pulse that seemingly takes out all of Earth’s electronics, the Skitters achieve air dominance, deploy ground forces in the form of bipedal battle mechs and start rounding up teenagers to use as slave labour.

The show begins six months after this initial attack and follows the adventures of history professor turned resistance fighter, Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), his two sons Hal (Drew Roy) and Matt (Maxim Knight), the troop’s doctor (Moon Bloodgood), their militia commander Captain Weaver (Will Patton) and 300 others who form the sixth Massachusetts militia.

Out of the gate, this array of characters failed in their attempt to make an emotional connection with me.  I blame this on the fact that with the exception of John Pope (Colin Cunningham), a convict turned scavenger turned cook, there’s not a lot of genuine emotion coming off any of these characters.  Where’s the bitterness?  Where’s the tenuous grasp on sanity?  Where’s the kook who calls his gun Charlene? Where are the hard-core religious zealots talking about the wrath of god?  Other two lapses in judgement during combat, one Noah Wyle hissy-fit at the base, and a girl who is content to turn the other cheek to the alien invasion, these people make post-apocalyptic life seem like a camping trip.

Part of this problem has to stem from the fact that the scripts are plagued by exposition.  Falling Skies premier episode had Noah Wyle et al making no less than six references to the fact that Tom Mason was a professor of military history.  After one reference, I understood that he would be able to transfer his knowledge of tactics and asynchronous warfare to the militia.  Following the fifth reference, Mason looked like an under-qualified candidate in a job interview, desperate to prove that years of writing a wordpress blog translated to web design experience. I don’t blame Wyle as much as a combination of bad writing and poor directing that under utilize Wyle’s acting abilities.  Other examples of this exposition can be seen in Matt Mason’s incessant whining about wanting life to go back to normal, the supporting cast’s “we miss our children” refrain that lifts imagery straight from Battlestar Galactica and Hal Mason’s cliché ridden romantic sub-plot.  Spoiler alert: after fifteen minutes, the show all but sends you a telegram to let you know there is going to be a love triangle.

The real tragedy in the exposition is that it manages to demystify what should be an unknown situation.  On a few occasions, Falling Skies dips its toe into the horrors of war.  While the aliens’ endgame is unknown, they are using psychological warfare and child soldiers to achieve their goals.  Yet after each occurrence of those horrors, Tom Mason is there to explain it all away, usually with oblique references to things that Nazis used to do.  There’s something a little too convenient about those explanations.  There’s no “other” to fear in aliens that utilize the same tactics that the Romans did to enforce order within the Legions.  Also, with professor daddy ameliorating the horrors of war, the scripts effectively sabotage any potential for long term character damage.  Sufficed to say, I don’t expect to see a Colonel Tigh emerging among the Falling Skies ensemble.

If the bloated writing isn’t enough to shatter disbelief, the questionable science certainly accounts for any shortfall.  The problem isn’t so much that the science is bad, it’s that it is half-bad.  Case in point: the aliens begin their invasion by firing off electromagnetic pulses around the Earth.  The thing with EMPs is that they only disable active electronics, not everything manufactured post-1960.  While it might look MacGuyverish, ergo very cool, to see survivors building radios out of vacuum tubes, it probably wouldn’t be necessary given that the military, which is indirectly supporting the resistance, has access to hardened technology that will resist EMPs.

Then there’s the latest episode in which the survivors are trying to communicate with a captured alien.  The resistance’s chief medical officer says that the Skitter could have a vocal range outside of human auditory capacity, a very good point.  Rather than holding up a chalk board that says 1+1=2, as every scientist knows that math is the only universal language, that self-same CMO opts for psychological torture as a means of opening a dialogue.  This tendency for characters to state aloud that they recognize the invaders as aliens only to do something purely nonsensical is a fixture within Falling Skies. A similar situation occurs when two characters are busy expositing on how six legged aliens build two legged battle mechs.  It’s as if the writers are trying to hang lanterns on all the things that insufferable piss ants like myself are going to point out.  Yet, for all their efforts they are only accentuating the flaws that drive the show.

Despite lurching through its first four episodes, Falling Skies isn’t without potential salvation.  Cathartic as it might be to see the humans score a few victories, the Skitters need to get their shit together and punish the resistance for their impudence.  No more of this penny-ante teenage slave taking – which is a complete and total lift from The Tripods novels and TV show.  For all their subjugation of the Earth, the stakes within the show still seem impossibly low.  As the supporting cast already feels as disposable as spent facial tissue, killing off a few ancillary characters would probably be a good place to start ratcheting up the tension.  It might also be a good idea to let the actors act.  Most of the cast seems quite capable; perhaps they could evoke some emotion rather perpetually chattering about their feelings.

I doubt Falling Skies will do for alien invasions what The Walking Dead has done for zombies, but with a few changes it could potentially rise above its current blasé mediocrity.

Overall Score: -1

 


3

Movie Review: Battle Los Angeles

Summary Judgement:  This movie works in failure like Picasso worked in paint.

Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez and Bridget Moynahan

Written by: Christopher Bertolini

Directed by: Jonathan Liebesman

I don’t know what is going on with science fiction movies lately.  First, we have to endure the gong show that was Skyline. Now, Battle Los Angeles plods across the screen, offending common sense and setting back the genre so much that I think Independence Day just qualified for a retroactive Oscar.  But what really kills me is that this movie still seems to be finding apologists.  I, however, refuse to grant this movie any quarter.  To do so would drive us further into a world where even the most average sci-fi flick seems good in comparison to the plethora of flotsam and jetsam permeating popular culture.  No sir, the line must be drawn here.

Battle LA has all the intelligence and sophistication of a group of thirteen year olds playing Halo. Of course, that might be over selling things a bit as I have taught many a thirteen year old who would turn their nose up at this movie.  The plot, what little there is, deals with a platoon of cliché addled United States Marines and their poorly designed mission to help evacuate the west coast of California in the face of an alien invasion.  Naturally, they throw out that plan and instead save the world.  From start to finish, there’s a lot of running, more than I would expect from a modern infantry unit, a lot of shooting at things you can’t really see, minutes upon minutes of shaky cam and lots of people getting killed.  Indeed, if you go see this movie don’t get too attached to any of the characters because a lot of them are going to die.

Despite this “scintillating” plot, the movie doesn’t work.  Why?  For the simple reason that Battle LA is firmly grounded in stupidity.  In the context of this review, I’ve broken the stupidity into two categories, narrative stupidity and genre/cinematic stupidity.   Let’s start with an examination of the latter.

Since Battle LA deals almost exclusively with members of the Marine Corps, it is as much a war movie as it is a sci-fi story.  As a war story, Battle LA is content to splash ankle deep in the tropes established by other, more successful, movies.  The most obvious and poorly executed gambit therein is the use of a grizzled sergeant and a newbie lieutenant.  Unless Bertolini and Liebseman are working under the assumption that nobody in the audience has seen Platoon, everybody knows how the dynamic between Sgt. Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) and Lt. Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) is going to play out.  As a sci-fi movie, Battle LA takes a page right out of Star Trek’s playbook.  Presumably, to establish mood and demonstrate the dire reality of the situation, Battle LA’s cup runneth over with dead jarheads.  Unfortunately, the whirlwind nature of the story prevents me from establishing any sort of empathy with these characters.  The death of a grunt in this movie comes with all the apathy of watching my marines die in a game of Starcraft. Bad camera work rounds out the genre stupidity for this movie.  For years now, I’ve tried to figure out the allure of the shaky cam.  I know the arguments about heightened reality and putting the viewer in the story, but I still think they are weak sauce excuses to use blurred images and distant shots as a means to get around low production budgets while maintaining the pretence of building atmosphere.

While all of these dreadful tropes played out before my eyes, my ears were treated to a soundtrack that sounded a little too similar to that of Black Hawk Down. Strangely enough, I could have swore that I heard all of the movie’s sound effects in Transformers. Yet to understand the truly pointless nature of this movie we must turn to the premise itself.

Without stupidity acting as narrative mortar, the movie would collapse under the weight of its own idiocy.  The trailers for Battle LA tell us that Earth is being invaded for its resources, primarily water.  Let’s take a moment to consider that idea; a space faring civilization, most likely from another solar system, is invading Earth for its water.  While the hydrogen in water is useful as a fuel for nuclear fusion, it is also the most abundant element in the universe.  Logic would suggest they could find hydrogen without invading our planet.  Clearly, these invaders are both lazy and stupid.  Rather than building a hydrogen ramscoop, the aliens invade in the most resource intensive method imaginable, deploying troops into urban areas.

So rather than take out our satellites, EMP us from orbit and then drop a few rocks on our cities at terminal velocity, they invade with ground forces?  What sort of morons give up a position in orbit to engage in urban warfare?  Why not fight a land war in Asia while you’re doing stupid things?  Furthermore, if they are only after Earth’s resources, then why bother fighting us at all?  Why not drop a genetic virus on the planet that will kill all the humans.  Surely a species that has the capacity to graft weapons on to their limbs has sufficient mastery over genetics to figure out what will kill humans en masse.

Inevitably, I expect somebody will read this review and say, “Adam, if they did anything that you suggested, there wouldn’t be a movie.”  To which I say, when the only thing that holds a movie together is utter and complete stupidity, it doesn’t deserve to be made.  Even as a ‘turn my brain off’ action movie, I could not bring myself to ignore such giant plot holes.  I’ll even go so far as to reject allegations that this movie is a recruiting tool for the Marine Corps.  Honestly, there’s no way real Marines are as ignorant of tactical doctrine as the troopers we see in this movie.  Thus, it’s unlikely that a showcase of bad soldiering will fill recruitment quotas.  The only thing that felt Marine-ish about this fiasco is the fact that the enlisted men are primarily black and latino.

Other than illustrating Michael Moore’s point about racial minorities in the American military, there’s really nothing good to say about this movie.  The script is idiotic.  The acting is sub-par; epic speeches to rally the troops wouldn’t motivate me to have a bowel movement, let alone fight aliens.  Its special effects are far from special; in fact, they are mostly blurry.  Battle LA makes so many other bad movies look good that I just don’t know what to think about the world anymore.  Maybe The Time Traveller’s Wife wasn’t that bad after all.  Hell, I could probably sit through Battlefield Earth after watching this movie and come up with something positive to say.

Because I don’t think big budget movie making can get much worse, I’m actually going to do it…

Overall Score: -5: the worst possible score I can give.