December 29, 2009

Stupid on "Star Trek" stilts (3)

Star Trek (2009) works well despite its scientifically silly self because Abrams gets the human (and half-human) relationships right (in action flick terms). I just wish Abrams hadn't gotten Star Trek confused with Pirates of the Caribbean.

The most idiotic sequence in the movie has Spock throwing Kirk off the ship, the technical equivalent of making him walk the plank. Spock Senior doesn't need to instruct Kirk on how to relieve Spock Junior of command, because Spock Junior has just committed a court martial offense.

Even if the sailor is a worthless bum, no captain is not going to dump him in a lifeboat and wish him bon voyage. Forget about the value of human life, the military really does not like its officers wasting valuable military property. That's what the brig is for.

In the PBS documentary Carrier, a fighter pilot misjudges his fuel load, is forced to land at Balad Airbase, and blows a tire. In the Top Gun universe, they'd laugh about it over beers. In the real world, he's grounded and may be court-martialed for damaging Navy equipment.

Besides, the whole mutant polar bears and ice-covered planets thing is old. There's nothing here that wasn't done in The Empire Strikes Back and The Undiscovered Country.

A single line of dialogue earlier could have established that Scotty's outpost was due for a servicing mission--and now all the more so that Vulcan is toast--so Spock sends Kirk down with a shuttle and then takes off as soon as he's left, promising to come back and pick him up later.

The bonus here is that a series of totally unbelievable coincidences--Kirk just happening to run into Spock Senior and then just happening to run into Scotty--is avoided. And Spock Senior ends up with a shuttle.

Okay. I'm done. This horse is dead.

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Stupid on Star Trek stilts (2)
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December 23, 2009

"Independence Day" in Japanese

Speaking of Independence Day, over at AJATT, Khatzumoto ripped an MP3 of the Japanese dub of the "St. Independence Day Speech."

The translation and dub are a good fit for Pullman's performance. Just about any Japanese actor who's played the lead or villain in one of NHK's year-long historical dramas has delivered a speech like this (albeit dressed as a samurai warrior). You don't need to understand Japanese to follow the dramatic beats.

Wareware wa kesshite otonashiku shi no yami ni kietari wa shinai!
We [definitely] will not [disappear] quietly into the [darkness of death]!

Wareware wa kesshite tatakawazu shite shi niwa shinai!
We [definitely] will not [die] without a fight!

Minna de ikiru no da!
We're [all] going to [live]! [These two lines are reversed from the English.]

Ikinokoru no da!
We're going to live on!

Kyou, wareware no dokuritsu kinenbi wo iwaou!
Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!

Khatzumoto has a transcription (in Japanese) of the whole speech.

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December 21, 2009

Stupid on "Star Trek" stilts (2)

Bad science fiction isn't the fault of far-out science, which is why I can enjoy eye-rolling SF like The X-Files. I figure anything theorized in the past century is up for grabs. But when it comes to the basic laws of motion and thermodynamics, though strict compliance may be too much to ask for, the spirit of the law deserves at least a polite tip of the hat.

In too many cases, unfortunately, the hard-won gifts of the Enlightenment are taken for granted, and quite unnecessarily at that. I feel compelled to plead with Hollywood's right-brained creative genius to throw a little pocket change at a few left-brained Caltech grad students to bring their scripts into at least the same universe as the scientific method.

The most annoying scientific faux pas in space opera is treating orbiting spaceships like airplanes. Johannes Kepler figured out how planetary orbits worked four hundred years ago. Plenty of time to get up to speed on the subject.

The only space battle I've seen play out with any respect for orbital science occurs in anime series Infinite Ryvius. (Unfortunately, the series is also quite realistic about what would happen if a bunch of teenagers took over a starship--namely, you'd end up with Lord of the Flies in space, which I found too painful to keep watching.)

The most jarring scientific moment in Star Trek has Kirk and Sulu parachuting from orbit onto Nero's "drill platform." As Isaac Newton demonstrated back in 1728 with his cannonball analogy, an object in orbit is literally in free fall. You can't "fall" out of orbit without sharply decelerating, usually by a combination of thrusters and atmospheric drag.

What makes the scene so frustrating is that it could have easily been done right--or at least less wrong. Kirk and Sulu (and the other guy--was he wearing a red uniform?) would ride snowmobile-looking contraptions that combined a retro-rocket and heat shield. They'd arc out of orbit and intersect the platform on a near-horizontal vector.

The special effects would be just as cool, the science and technology would be in the realm of the possible, and you'd get a new action figure toy out of it to boot. Win-win-win!

One more minor note about that drill platform. It resembles a space elevator, which is theoretically possible. But the mother ship would have to be in geostationary orbit over the equator. Again, a minor tweak to the script would fix it.

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December 18, 2009

Stupid on "Star Trek" stilts (1)

The latest iteration of Star Trek isn't so much SF as DF: "dumb fun." Along with movies like Independence Day and Live Free or Die Hard, the science isn't merely fictionized, it's a magic wand. A prop to be chewed on. And yet done in a way that the rest of the rational mind goes along for the ride and enjoys itself.

I'm not talking about the MacGuffins. In Star Trek, the whole "red matter" silliness belongs alongside other impossibilities like warp drives and transporters, far enough removed from reality to not disturb the integrity of any actual science. The problem here isn't the physics, but the logical implications of the physics as stipulated.

As in Star Wars, if you make blowing up stars and planets that easy (lining up a contractor and the budget), the arms race implications become horrifying. And if a Death Star can pulverize an entire planet, then the Mini-Me version should be able to vaporize a continent or two, which would obviate the whole first act of The Empire Strikes Back.

Which brings us to the favorite kamikaze tactic in Star Trek: ramming the bad guys with a starship. Because starship engines run on antimatter, rupturing the magnetic containment vessels would trigger an explosion more powerful than a hydrogen bomb. This actually qualifies as valid science.

One reason I give the dumber-than-dirt Independence Day a big pass (besides Bill Pullman's rah-rah Americanized version of the St. Crispian speech) is that even if you've got yourself a super-armored spaceship the size of Rhode Island, setting off a thermonuclear device inside it will indeed turn it into so much Jiffy Pop.

At the end of Star Trek, Scotty dumps the engine cores, which go kaboom, and they ride the shock wave away from the black hole created by rupturing the containment vessel holding the "red matter." All fine and dandy, but why didn't it work for Spock or Kirk Senior? Their ships were smaller, but either should have blown Nero's to kingdom come.

This is one of those MacGuffins whose implications were never thought through from the start. Let's say that, at the end of the day, starships can only run on Chernobyl-grade power sources. A calculated risk taken by daredevil risk-takers. But in that case, you wouldn't populate the ship with families and the occasional pregnant woman.

In science fiction, the demands of objective science can take you only so far. Keeping a narrative's internally-created realities--however non-scientific--consistent with each other will create many more interesting story possibilities than if they are lazily glossed over.

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December 16, 2009

Ghibli's "The Borrowers"

Studio Ghibli's next project is Mary Norton's The Borrowers. Hayao Miyazaki will write the screenplay, direction is by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (who previously did key animation for Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, and Ponyo), and longtime Ghibli veteran Toshio Suzuki will produce.

The setting is the Tokyo suburb of Koganei. This shouldn't affect the essence of the book. Quite to the contrary, the story demands exactly the kind of charm and whimsy that Miyazaki brought to My Neighbor Totoro (wrote and directed) and Whisper of the Heart (wrote and produced).

And one of Miyazaki's first projects was an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables.

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December 14, 2009

Star Trek

J.J. Abrams's reboot of Star Trek (2009) is a non-stop pastiche of eye-rolling hand-waves, each one more unbelievable than the last. A compilation of cliffhangers straight out of B-movie serial land. A script that makes Star Wars looks Shakespearean by comparison.

And yet the sum of the parts of this two-hour cinematic train wreck--the scattered pieces recycled from (exactly) thirty years of theatrical releases--is the most enjoyable Trek in two decades, worthy of being considered in the same canonical company as II, IV and VI.

Abrams's snappy pacing deserves a lot of credit, never dawdling long enough for the sheer absurdity of a scene to sink in. But the lion's share goes to the pitch-perfect casting and well-designed sets the actors appear at home in. Chris Pine as Kirk settles into that captain's chair like he owns it.

Zachary Quinto as young Spock achieves what Jim Parsons does as Sheldon on Big Bang Theory (albeit as a dramatic character), capturing the mien of a man who lives too much in his own head, but doesn't begrudge yielding the spotlight to a driven extrovert who lives too much outside his own head.

I wouldn't have expected the Spock/Uhura relationship to work, but it does. There's a lot of dramatic potential here if they don't mawkishly mess it up.

The other backstories ring true too. McCoy running away from a bad marriage (and implying that he comes from old money). Scotty as an eccentric scientist who's found a himself a great new toy. When Chekov jumps up and excitedly declares, "I can do this!" I bought the emotion completely.

Even the gimmick of Nimoy's cameo works, Nimoy having achieved the kind of on-screen gravitas usually reserved for bearded British actors. I hope they find an excuse to use him again.

Only one thing worries me. In the (hoped-for) sequels, Abrams must come up with stories that do not involve the end of life as we know it. I couldn't helping thinking of The Jerk, where the sniper keeps missing Steve Martin and hitting cans on the store shelves, and Martin yells, "He hates cans!"

Star Trek villains really hate solar systems. Destroying stars and sundry planetary objects in order to get even with somebody--it's time to retire this plot device permanently. Time travel too. We've been there and done that and done that enough times for several lifetimes already.

The real attraction of police procedurals like Bones (which is really Star Trek: Booth as Kirk, Brennan as Spock, Saroyan as McCoy) is watching a competent team working together to get something important done. Star Trek needs to get back to that: bigger team, smaller problems.

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December 11, 2009

Translated correctly

Speaking of Mormon literary references, in Mormon theological terminology, "to be translated" means to be resurrected without dying first.

And [Enoch] saw the Lord, and he walked with him, and was before his face continually; and he walked with God three hundred and sixty-five years, making him four hundred and thirty years old when he was translated (D&C 107:49).

A similar pop culture expression (I'm serious) is "to twinkle."

And ye shall never endure the pains of death; but when I shall come in my glory ye shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye from mortality to immortality; and then shall ye be blessed in the kingdom of my Father (3 Nephi 28:8).

On an episode of Bones earlier this year ("Double Death of the Dearly Departed"), that takes place at a funeral home, Agent Booth decides that talking openly about the investigation would be rude. So instead of saying the victim was "murdered," they will say he was "translated."

Angela Montenegro: Hey, you stole the body?
Agent Booth: No. No. No. No. We didn't steal it, you see? We borrowed it. Okay? Cam and Bones think it was translated.
Angela Montenegro: Uh, what?
Agent Booth: Translated. It's code for murder. That's how we're saying it today. Translated.

Okay, opposite meaning, but the usage is otherwise spot on. They keep this gag going for the whole show. It's so funny from a Mormon perspective that I have to believe a Mormon dreamed it up.

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December 07, 2009

Taking "Twilight" seriously

Having previous put Harry Potter under the literary microscope, John Granger has set out to discover academic substance in Twilight. And while I get the feeling he is uncovering subtlety where none was intended, and giving Meyer the benefit of doubts never demanded, and getting Mormon popular culture plain wrong, I heartily applaud the effort.

On that last point, non-Mormon critics who take on low-brow Mormon fiction really need to think much lower brow when it comes to the theology as well, especially when the subject of "predestined" marriage comes up. Quite coincidentally, while working on the sequel to The Path of Dreams, I recently wrote the following exchange:

     Elly said, "Can I ask you a dumb question?"
     "How dumb?"
     "Do you think people are made for each other?"
     "Like in Saturday's Warrior, you mean?"
     She grimaced at the comparison. "I suppose, minus the tacky and saccharine stuff."

That's the first reference any born and bred Mormon will seize upon. Incidentally, the most direct--and entertaining--access to popular Mormon culture can be had via Robert Kirby and Calvin Grondahl. Card's Saintspeak is worth a mention too.

But such obvious misses aside, popular fiction deserves defending, and Granger rises admirably to the task. Taking on a Washington Post story about educated women embarrassed to admit they like Twilight, he observes how stunned such readers are when,

having suspended disbelief and entered a "cheesy vampire romance" novel that by their arbitrary checklist of literary do's and don'ts is "trash," they have the mythic, borderline religious experience the best stories deliver. What is so stunning--and embarrassing?--is less the "out of nowhere" surprise of this experience (think Susan Boyle) than that their usual fare of reading, the right sort of books, is nowhere near as engaging, even transformative as Mrs. Meyer's "junk."

I think this gets to the heart of the "otaku" experience, devotees who muster far more passion for a particular "art form" than the urbane consumers of less "plebeian" fare. The problem, explains Granger, is that "the very well educated have a basic misunderstanding of what good writing is and isn't" [italics added].

Great story telling isn't elevated language or literary style. It isn't conformity to category standards or to genre formulae. And it isn't about "speaking truth to power" postmodern nihilism. Certainly great stories can have those qualities (except perhaps the last) and most do. But what a great story has to do, as C.S. Lewis noted in conversation with George Sayer, is make you answer "yes" to the questions: "Does it make you better, wiser, and happier? And do you like it?"

Stanley Fish makes a similar point in his review of Sarah Palin's autobiography (and the same thing could be said of Meyer):

Do I believe any of this? [Is this "great literature"?] It doesn't matter. What matters is that she does, and that her readers feel they are hearing an authentic voice. I find the voice undeniably authentic.

Granger also dings Stephen King (deservedly) for criticizing Meyer in "pot meets kettle" fashion, pointing out that it's usually King at the receiving end of such comments. And after dumping (deservedly) on Harold Bloom, he comes up with a great term to describe literary critics who can't see the forest for the trees: "Genre revulsion."

And he digs up a great King quote to boot:

If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.

That's the standard I'm literally living by these days.

Just as the transformational effects of a religion on a culture and society make the religion worthy of study regardless of whether one believes its transcendental claims, at the bare minimum, the effects of popular entertainment make it worthy of serious study, apart from the question of whether it's "good" or not.

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December 02, 2009

Beware the shrike!

In the "cool things you learn while translating" category: 百舌の速贄 (mozu no haya'nie), "a worm or a frog impaled on a branch by a shrike," which can be literally translated as "the shrike's sacrificial offering."

According to Wikipedia, "Shrikes [or "butcher birds"] are known for their habit of catching insects, small birds, or mammals and impaling their bodies on thorns."

A great metaphor to use in a horror novel. And the appearance of this terrifying creature? All together now: Awww. Though that hook at the end of its upper beak does lend the cutie an edge of menace.

North America's Loggerhead Shrike will "stun or kill prey with its powerful, hooked beak before impaling it on a plant thorn or barbed-wire fence. The victim will then be picked apart over time, sometimes left there for months before being finished."

All together now: Ewww.

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