[Warning—spoilers ahead] Logan (2017) launches into a genuine and abiding sadness, a sense of abandonment—what brought Charles Xavier so low, to this pitiable existence, confined to a collapsed water tower in the Mexican desert? Now that he is in need, where are all of his students? His beloved X-men? And all the other people he helped over the years? In his advanced age, Charles suffers a plight similar to that of so many real people every day. This predicament, at once quotidian and unprecedented (for the leader of the X-men), is something you don’t see in superhero movies. Charles, played once again and to amazing effect, by Patrick Stewart, continues as Earth’s most powerful telepath, yet suffers from a degenerative brain disease. The incredibly powerful (IMO) casino scene uses Charles’ mental illness to full effect.wolverine-story_647_102116025055

Hugh Jackman plays an aged, world-weary Wolverine who doesn’t heal as well as he used to, and who seems even more worn out on the inside than evidenced by his scarred body. Together, he and Charles clash in a surprisingly touching father-son dynamic. The mundane concept of a younger man caring for a mentally- and physically-declining loved one combines surprising well with the fantastic superhero aspects of the film. In one scene, Logan doggedly helps Charles use the bathroom despite Charles’ exasperation and humiliation. Despite its shortness, this scene and others like it (Charles opening his mouth wide and groaning mockingly to show Logan he swallowed his meds), without any special effects at all, make us wonder how these two came to such a pass, yet reinforce the durable relationship that survives between them despite a clearly difficult, if unknown, past.5 Logan Liver spots.png

Laura (X-23) is aptly played by Dafne Keen who transitions smoothly between scenes of horrific combat and moments of childlike innocence. In one scene, she takes on an almost maternal role, a juxtaposition of her and Logan as adult and child, when an exhausted, wounded Logan can’t drive anymore. Despite his fatigue, he refuses to let her drive. Laura pulls them over so he can sleep. Later, Logan sleeps with his head on her lap. She shifts him over, then switches to the driver’s seat so she can continue driving.

Despite its quieter aspects, the film doesn’t stint on action or effects. The near future is rendered smartly with cyborgs and autotrucks, the latter routine yet terrifyingly oblivious. Throughout its 137 minutes, the film delivers a visceral realism I haven’t seen in almost any other superhero film (Dredd (2012) would be an exception). The violence is screamingly intense, yet almost always believable without being over the top. Claws are used to full effect. People die—a  lot of them.Logan-X-23

Accompanying the riveting plot is an impressive music score. Not something I usually notice in a superhero film, the music ekes out even more adrenalin and should (if I were to have a say) win awards.

Interweaving of actual paper X-Men comics as a plot element within the film’s fictional reality—even a Wolverine action figure clutched by a mutant child—deliver the message we already know: Wolverine will live on.

Blame! Is a 2017 anime film released by Netflix, directed by Hiroyuki Seshita and written by Tsutomu Nihei and Sadayuki Murai (based on Nihei’s manga of the same name). [Spoiler alert!] The film opens with a small group of humans in high-tech exosuits exploring deep within a strange and ominous cityscape as they search for food—if food is defined as organic sludge coming out of a pipeline. They move stealthily to avoid the attention of something they call Safeguard and wear “helmettals”, helmets that hide their human features, a kind of camouflage from Safeguard and its watchtowers, while providing them with data-augmented vision (the kind of virtual overlay, or heads-up display, that Google glass aspired to). It’s not long until Safeguard detects their intrusion and sends exterminators after them—bizarre machines that run on four legs and wear Noh-like masks. In full retreat, the humans are quickly cut off, but a dark stranger named Killy appears to rescue them.

Unafraid of the killer machines, Killy wears no mask and wields superior weapons. He returns with the survivors to their village where we learn they are Electro-Fishers, a lone group of humans surviving in a sanctuary zone but on the brink of starvation. The Electro-Fishers are led by an older man named Pops who questions Killy. We learn a little—Killy is searching for humans who still possess the Net Terminal Gene, a gene which grants its possessor authority over the City, Safeguard, and the Builders.

Other than that, we never learn much about Killy. At first, I thought—Killy—this guy’s gonna do lots of killin’, and he does, sort of. One of the things I liked about Killy is he seemed like a standard protagonist, and I wanted to place him in the good guy category, but I was never quite sure as the story progressed—was he really helping the Electro-Fishers? Or just using them, or perhaps just allying with them as long as it serves his purpose. In that sense, his mysterious origin persists throughout the film adding a nice touch of anticipation.

The animation really stands out in terms of quality—it’s very well drawn with a beautiful sense of motion during action scenes. You really feel the dread as the exterminators scuttle towards the characters at an inhuman pace. The city itself is impressive for the overwhelming sense of unknowable machine complexity it conveys—a fully enclosed environment created by machines who lost or escaped the control of their human masters and now continue building, expanding the city for reasons only they understand. In terms of style, the film replicates the visuals, linework, and faces of Nihei’s anime series, Knights of Sidonia, also released on Netflix.

Watching this made me remember some past books and films. It bore a slight resemblance to Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three, although with a completely different setting, of course. Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson, also comes to mind. The obvious film comparison is to the Terminator series, although the feeling here is very different despite the shared killer-robot elements. In a way, it reminds me of an animated short, the Transcendent City, by Richard Hardy—a city created by machines for machines conveying an feeling of on-going processes we’ll never understand.

One gripe I have to get out is I still don’t know why the film is called Blame! Who’s to blame for losing the Net Terminal Gene? (how does one lose a gene anyway other than by going extinct?) Who’s to blame for getting everyone killed? I suspect I won’t know until I start reading the manga—always a recommended step for anime you love.

Overall, Blame! provides an hour and 46 minutes of excellent sci-fi adventure. While not the most complex storyline (especially compared to anime released in series), it has a fast pace and a satisfying conclusion (while leaving plenty of room for a sequel(s)). I commend Netflix for making this quality of anime available to wide audiences—keep it coming!

The Boy and the Beast is a 2015 anime fantasy film written and directed by Mamoru Hosada. [Spoiler alert!] I really enjoyed this film, and I suspect anyone who appreciated Spirited Away will as well. The protagonist, a young boy named Kyūta, runs away from his mother’s family after her untimely death. Angry at his family, and especially his absent father, Kyūta ends up on the streets until he accepts an unusual offer and ends up in the world of the beasts, Jūtengai.

Kyūta’s rebelliousness is matched by the rough and tumble attitude of Kumatetsu, a maverick beast who takes him on as his apprentice. At first, Kumatetsu  is a horrible master and teacher. Together, it’s next to impossible either of them will succeed—but with the right encouragement and perseverance, they both begin to improve. Later, when Kyūta rediscovers the human world, he becomes torn between his need to learn new things and grow while coming to grips with the loose threads and old wounds of his past.

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I found the characters delightful—rich and various—with a simplicity and innocence similar to those in Hayao Miyazaki’s works. The animation quality is superb, and the story moves quickly, interspersing action with humor, introduction of new characters, and plenty of unexpected directions. The film delivers entertainment with lessons about growing up, forgiveness, selflessness and caring.

While I normally prefer the Japanese audio, for those watching with younger kids who can’t keep up with subtitles, the English-dubbed version was nicely done (as a side note: there is one scene with graphic violence that may disturb some younger children). Overall, highly recommended for anime fans and families!

In Sky Walking (2006), Dr. Tom Jones recounts his career as a NASA astronaut. Beginning with the application process, Jones takes us on a journey of becoming an astronaut, flying four space shuttle missions, and helping to construct the International Space Station.

The book provides glimpses into the rigorous training astronauts receive in preparation for their work in space, and in particular, for extravehicular activities (EVA). Before each space flight, the astronauts would complete mock missions underwater using shuttle and ISS replicas fascinating. If you calculate the cost of an EVA, from launch to landing back on Earth, every minute must be immensely expensive. Every manoeuver, every task, has to be choreographed and rehearsed for maximum efficiency and safety. Even small issues easily solved on Earth can become mission-crippling obstacles in space, and Dr. Jones  faced his share, including an irreversibly jammed hatch that resulted in a canceled EVA and an improperly-assembled elbow joint that caused enough pain to make competing that EVA a challenge. An even more dangerous case comes to mind: Luca Parmitano’s 2013 ISS mission during which his helmet began filling with water due to a malfunctioning filter while on EVA. Docking operations between the Space Shuttle and ISS were also fraught with dangerous possibilities, and Dr. Jones’ account of these procedures and the astronauts’ calm but meticulous piloting fascinated me. It may be a good indicator of our finally having made the leap to a space-based, multi-planet society when mishaps like these no longer happen or are more easily resolved when they do.

Another aspect of the book is its account of the lead up, politically and practically, to the design, construction, and operation of the ISS. Not only did Dr. Jones fly a shuttle mission (STS-98) as part of ISS construction, but he played a not-insubstantial role in managing NASA’s ISS Program, including the international partnerships that made it possible. NASA’s interactions with the Russian Government, in particular, make for great reading if you’re interested in how the ISS came to be.  I was interested, but not surprised, by the political, diplomatic and logistical difficulties that had to be overcome to build the ISS. That those obstacles were surmounted reinforces my perception of the ISS as a great example of how the human race can work together to accomplish amazing things. In the book, that spirit is clearly on display by the ISS astronauts (and cosmonauts) themselves whose comradery extends across borders forming a uniquely stateless community in space.

Dr. Jones completes the book with a short passage explaining his ideas and recommendations for how human space exploration ought to move forward. While just a bit outdated now, 11 years later, his thoughts on where we should go next are still relevant. A quick reveal—he’s not a fan of more lunar missions and instead recommends targeting a NEA (near-Earth asteroid) before tackling Mars. Regardless of our next destination, we can all thank astronauts like Dr. Jones for paving the way.

Kill Command is a 2016 film written and directed by Steven Gomez. The film’s premise [spoiler alert!] is a marine unit being sent to a remote island for an unscheduled training mission. They arrive without the typical greeting communications by human support staff, but they continue on with their mission and destroy the mostly oblivious enemy robots as expected. What they don’t expect is those gullible enemy robots are just a ploy used by a next-gen, mechanized combat robot referred to as a S.A.R. (Study Analyze Reprogram) unit and its contingent of more advanced robot foot soldiers to observe the marines, learn from them, and then apply their own tactics against them. This unexpected, second conflict unfolds with the marines gradually realizing they’ve been brought here under questionable circumstances and their survival is very much in question. The marines evolve from surprise, to dismay, and finally to grim concentration as they manage their retreat as best they can. The machines have them outgunned and outsmarted, and the humans know it.

The marines use some questionable military tactics. For the first third of the move or so, half the team neglects to even wear helmets. Under fire, they stand around or run upright—real soldiers would be hugging the ground, prone or crawling to keep as low a profile as possible. There’s a fair bit of one-handed rifle firing with dubiously high accuracy. The marines neglected to bring any heavy weapons, other than a mortar which is quickly lost. Unrealistic aspects apply to the robot side as well. For example, flying recon drones continually fly up to within an arms-reach of the marines. First of all, this makes their surveillance incredibly obvious when it doesn’t need to be—with today’s optics, a target could be visualized from kilometers away (not to mention what military satellites might be able to see from orbit). Even in a forest, where much of the action takes place, drones could detect and monitor targets from tens to hundreds of meters away and remain cryptic while doing so. Why reveal their presence and give up the element of surprise? In the film, the impression is the machines may not care about surprise—they don’t need it, but then why bother with this conflict at all? I suspect they come so close more for dramatic effect than anything else.

Only the white characters survive. The marines start out as a somewhat diverse group with two black soldiers out of six. That diversity is whittled down until only the white characters remain. While at least one of the two black soldiers dies a heroic death, I have to wonder about the plot choices and how they will be received by various film-goers.

The acting is adequate, but no one really stands out. The characters are all pretty thin—we never learn much about anyone. No soul-searching conversations while under fire here. No one asks any philosophical questions about the nature of artificial vs. biological beings, or how the murderous robotic soldier became self-aware or why it decided to study human combat in a live-fire, kill-all-humans format. The marines accept their fate with a surprising stoicism and not a single “game over, man!” (that could have been a nice homage to Bill Paxton, but oh well).

The film has a definite Terminator-esque  feel but without the unique appeal Arnold brought to his robot villain. The S.A.R. villain generates sufficient menace but without any memorable aspect (no interesting personality like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey). The CGI effects are well done and almost seamless, yet lacking creativity. And in these days of CGI mastery, good isn’t good enough. To be fair, this could have been an intentional choice to remain faithful to the combat robot designs already being developed by today’s militaries.

In my opinion, the robots underperformed. In future conflicts involving ground robots (“foot soldiers” which I suspect we’ll see deployed in the near future), they would be the perfect snipers—no breath control necessary, no body movement to still, unblinking eyes that can see beyond the spectrum of visible light. In the film, the robot grunts (mostly four-legged, heavy machine guns) miss a lot, don’t fire at a rapid rate, and in some cases are easily destroyed by single shots from the marines.

Despite these quibbles, the film offers a good glimpse of the future of mechanized war, but it’s unclear what role humans soldiers will play going forward. How will imperfect humans participate in future warfare without being quickly exterminated? It’s not an easy question to answer—will humans be able to fight at all? Or will they be confined to a bunker somewhere waiting helplessly for the cold calculus of machine vs. machine to play out on the battlefield and seal their fate as victors or victims? I’ve blogged about this topic before and took it even further in a short story, Lonely, Lonely. My guess is future human soldiers will only survive by working intimately with their own robot protectors (I’m exploring this idea further in a new series of far-future novels). Yet in reality, I suspect we’ll see early answers to questions like these soon enough. Just like the marines in Kill Command, we may not like what we see.

These three music videos are a lot of fun, and you should watch them now!

Welcome guest—I’d like to start you off with Flicker by Porter Robinson from his album Worlds. What starts out as a seemingly normal view from a train passing through Japan quickly evolves into an augmented reality of psychedelic digital reality overlaid on top of an otherwise mundane view of the countryside, residential neighborhoods, and

cityscapes. I might call this Anime Electronica. The digital music accompanies flying dragons, crazy-colored skies, explosions, color-shifting rivers, and geometric spheres destroying houses with lasers, all rendered in a delightful 80s-style digital aesthetic. The

music is high energy, fun, and fits this acid-trip of a video perfectly. Directed by Adam Goodall, produced by Targa Sahyoun, with VFX by Adam Petke @ Coyote Post.

The second video is Earth by Dream Koala (from his 2014 EP Earth. Home. Destroyed.) which follows the voyage of a lone space traveler from an unknown location in space, through our solar system, to ultimately crash land on Earth. The video was directed by FABULOUS (Adrien Peze and Albin Merle) and created by Les Gentils Garçons. Beautiful visuals show the astronaut (Dream Koala) in the interior of the ship, suited up, and bpeering into the rainbow-lit aurora of what might be the way ahead as seen from a faster-than-light velocity or possibly just really cool light effects. The ship follows a winding trajectory, threading its way through Saturn’s rings, past the ISS, and through Earth’s atmosphere. Juxtaposed against the space images are environmental symbols: oil derricks, power lines, and open pit mines. Yet the music and lyrics are never preachy.

Lyrics:

Have you ever seen the lights
Of a thousand exploding suns?
Kingdoms and cathedrals under the ocean
Because no god can save us from ourselves
No god can save me from myself
So I will remember the earth as it was
And let my dead body floating in space
When my time will come
We can’t escape from here
Our time has come
As we see the world collapsing so close from the end
Our time has come

cThe music blends well with this unexplained journey, but the video never explains why the traveler is going to Earth or what happens on arrival. Does he survive? From the lyrics, maybe not, but I can empathize with his perspective. More and more, human civilization seems to me like it’s on autopilot regardless of our best efforts to steer away from danger.

Lastly, I’d like to leave you with Easy by Mat Zo & Porter Robinson (taken from Mat Zo’s new album Damage Control). Another anime-inspired music video, this one follows a young starlet dissatisfied with her media-saturated life. Naturally, she abandons her

mega-scraper pad via Akira-style motorcycle, but not before triggering  a device that explodes releasing  an expanding sphere of Wankershim-like alternate reality through which our young heroine finally arrives in the peaceful dreamscape she’s been wanting. The music has almost an inspirational vibe–this is a nice video to watch if you need cheering up. Directed by: Louis & McCourt, studio: The Line, production Company: Bullion Productions.

Gantz: 0 is a Japanese, CGI anime movie based on the original manga series Gantz [Note: spoilers ahead!]. I ran into Gantz: 0 on Netflix, not having heard anything about it previously. I had read some of the manga years ago and seen the live-action version (2010), so I decided to give this film version a go. I’m glad I did! Normally, I avoid CGI animation which has traditionally suffered from uncanny valley syndrome (creepy vibe of animation that comes close to human realism but falls short in a bad way). Early attempts like the Final Fantasy films (2001, 2005), The Polar Express (2004), and Beowulf (2007) had soured me on CGI for “realistic” mainstream films (admittedly it’s been a better fit for children’s films), but at the same time, I knew video game CGI effects and animation in general were advancing all the time. Gantz: 0 showcases the best CGI characters I’ve witnessed yet. While still noticeably animated, the characters have just enough expression that I managed to skip over the valley and achieve that much sought after “suspension of disbelief” despite some persistent manikin-like attributes—artificial posture and body motion (do people really sway like that?), skin textures, physics-defying hair, and the compulsory well-endowed female characters (how much animator time has been devoted to the physics of breasts?).

Plot and character borrow minimally from the original, more complex and slow-to-unfold manga storyline (skipping the multiple “game” rounds, learning about the rules and how to survive and what Gantz is), but the film preserves the core of the series—people resurrected to fight aliens, or in this film—supernatural monsters. There isn’t much in the way of character development. The hero, Masaru Kato, does heroic things mainly because he’s the hero. Inexplicably, all the veteran warriors with the high-level weaponry are killed off. With the help of his friends (and one not-so-friendly kid with homicidal tendencies), Kato prevails in the end despite his apparent lack of skills. The morals seem to be self-sacrifice is the trait most worthy of admiration and teamwork can trump badassery.pedmc1a

Despite its shortcomings, Gantz: 0 delivers over-the-top effects in true Japanese anime/manga style with full-on craziness and mayhem captured in eye-popping CGI detail. IMO, the creativity on display here puts many Hollywood special effects juggernauts like Pacific Rim or Godzilla (2014 reboot) to shame. Bodies, lighting, and scenery are amazingly rendered. It’s clear digital animation is steadily gaining on its live-action counter-part. I expect in 5-10 years the two forms may be nearly indistinguishable. In any case, the monsters steal the show in Gantz: 0—horrors brought to life from Japanese folklore—you can tell the animators went all out in this respect.

I enjoyed this film and would definitely watch more if the Gantz: 0 team ever decides to tell more stories from the Gantz universe. As a tangent, I’d like to suggest they also take on one of my favorite series—Berserk. I think their style would fit perfectly with Berserk’s medieval knights-and-monsters carnage. I can only hope!