Featured Guest Post: “Realistic Sci-Fi – The Best Films That Accurately Portray the Modern World” by Maria Ramos

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Please welcome back to the site, Maria Ramos. You may recall her last contribution, which dealt with Contemporary Dystopian Novels that are worth reading and not part of the current, overplayed YA fad. Well she’s back, this time with contemporary science fiction movies that are definitely worth watching. Enjoy!

The world of science fiction is full of fantastical tales that have no place in reality. Some of the best stories could never happen in real life. Still, the ones that really capture our imagination are those that contain a hint of truth. These five films are fascinating examples of realistic sci-fi films that may provide a glimpse into our future.

Many films of the past have been able to accurately predict things like tablet computers, home security and automation, cell phones and wearable tech. It’s a strange thought that these objects, when shown for the first time on the silver screen, seemed so far fetched and borderline ridiculous, but today are as commonplace as a coffee maker. Let’s take a look at some of the films that have gotten it disturbingly right in their predictions.

Metropolis (1927):
This film from the 1920s is set in a seemingly perfect city filled with wealthy people living a charmed life, with no idea that a vast population of oppressed workers are forced to stay underground, operating the machines that keep life going for the upper class. Although created decades before the advent of computers or even television, Metropolis predicted video calls through programs like Skype with its “television phone,” which characters in the movie use to communicate.

The Andromeda Strain (1971):
This film based on the novel by Michael Crichton tells the story of an alien virus that comes into contact with humans, mutating as it goes, almost destroying civilization. From biological warfare to satellites and laser weaponry, a lot of what is used throughout The Andromeda Strain mirrors the technology we have available to us today. Even the premise of the movie in general is not completely outlandish; microbiologists believe that it is possible that we may one day contract an extraterrestrial disease. If that were to happen, it’s unclear whether we would have the tools to combat it.

Gattaca (1997):
The premise of this 1997 flick may seem completely impossible: society is structured based on genetic sequencing, which reveals everyone’s genetic makeup. Clear lines are drawn, giving those who are genetically superior special privileges over everyone else. The discrimination the main character faces for his inferior dreams isn’t yet a reality, but as we work towards sequencing complete genomes, we will find ourselves closer to uncovering the secrets of our genes, and the consequences of this knowledge may not all be good. The film’s basic premise echos the recent controversy surrounding genetic testing to detect cancer.

Interstellar (2014):
In this movie, the world has become uninhabitable due to drought brought on by global warming, forcing mankind to search for somewhere to live. Although we haven’t reached this point, scientists stress the very real possibility of climate change ending life on Earth. If this were to happen now, humanity would be doomed, since we haven’t quite mastered the art of long-distance space travel yet. Still, scientists say that a trek on the scale of the one taken in Interstellar is possible. Ideas for how to accomplish this are still being explored, but thermonuclear fusion, light sails and gravitational slingshots are all potential solutions.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015):
One of this year’s most popular films is also one of the most noteworthy as far as realism in science fiction goes. While apocalyptic settings aren’t uncommon in sci-fi, the psychology of the characters in Mad Max: Fury Road is unique. Instead of the stereotypical hero who beats the villain and gets the girl, Max shows the kind of psychological damage you might expect in a harsh environment like the apocalypse. The other people in the movie also show the influence of this trauma through their behaviors, making for a realistic portrayal of what the end of the world might really be like.

Scientifically accurate sci-fi can both educate and inspire its viewers. Films like the ones listed above offer a window to the future, letting us see what might happen if we continue on the path that we are on. These predictions are sometimes an encouragement to innovate, but also sometimes a warning to change course before it’s too late. Either way, realism in science fiction makes for quality films that can be enjoyed for decades to come.

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Settling Mars: The Mars Base Challenge 2014

mars-colonyLife on Mars can’t become a reality without some serious design concepts and engineering. And that’s why Thingiverse, in cooperation with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, conduct the Makerbot Mars Base Challenge every year. Taking Mars’ extreme conditions into consideration, people are tasked with designing a utilitarian Mars base that can withstand the elements and make settlers feel at home.

The competition opened on May 30th and received some 227 submissions. The challenge brief asked entrants to take into account the extreme weather, radiation levels, lack of oxygen and dust storms when designing their Martian shelters. And the winning entries will each be awarded a MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer in order to help them fully explore their designs for Martian abodes.

And although the applicants did not always nail the science, their designs have a novelty that has not been seen in some time. This can especially be seen in with this years finalists, which included a design for a Martian pyramid, a modular beehive and a three-tiered Acropolis.

MarsChallengeResultsThe Thingiverse community appears to have been hugely supportive, printing out the designs themselves and offering handy hints in the comment section beneath each entry. Some were dismissed for being impractical; for example, those that would be immediately flattened or kill all of its inhabitants if it were installed on the Martian surface. But one designer, Noah Hornberger, points out:

A toy car does not need fuel because it runs on the imagination of the child who drives it around. So it seems to me that I’m driving my toy car at full speed and you are here telling me what kind of fuel and oil it needs to run. I would rather leave the physics to the right people.

Luckily, that’s what NASA is on hand for – to ensure that it’s not just the mathematicians and engineers that have an interest or a say in our Martian future, but to make sure those designs and dreams that come from the public meet the basic scientific and engineering requirements. Bringing together inspired ideas and realistic needs, here’s how this year’s finalists measured up.

MarsPryamid-4_Feature_preview_featured This Mars structure is designed with resource consumption and allocation in mind, and also takes into account that the majority of activity would be taking place inside the structure rather than outside. As its creator, Valcrow. explained:

High traffic rooms all have ample natural Martian light to help with the crews extended isolation and confinement… This design focuses on looping essential systems into as many multi-functional roles as possible to ensure that the very limited resources are used and reused as much as possible.

This includes food created through a sustainable aquaponics system which would sit at the top of the pyramid, where it can get some light. A mirror-based series of solar panels will be responsible for collecting energy, with a nuclear generator for backup, and water would be stored near the main power center so that it heats up. The whole thing is inspired by the Pyramid of Giza, but unlike that beauty it can be reconfigured for science or engineering tasks and experiments.

Mars_beehiveThis second design, known as the Queen B because of its modular beehive configuration, comes with all the mod cons and home comforts you might expect on Earth – a kitchen, two bathrooms, a garden, and a 3D print lab and decompression room. Its creator, Noah Hornberger, chose a flat-panelled, low-level design that would be cheap and easy to build and allow for less heat energy to be lost. The hexagon shape was chosen for its durability and ability to form modular designs.

Depleted uranium would be used to create laminated panels that would shield out the elements, but would need to be sandwiched between other materials to make it safe for the occupants. An exothermic chemical reactor would meanwhile be used to heat an underground water container, which will provide heat for the basecamp. Excess steam could also power generators to supplement solar power.

Speaking on behalf of his creation, Hornberger said:

I have extrapolated on the idea of a fully functional apartment on Mars with all the modern amenities fitted inside 16-foot-diameter hexagons. I think that to present Mars life to people and actually make it appealing to the public it needs to feel like home and reflect the lifestyle trends of Earth living.

Mars_acropolisAnd last, but not least, there’s the Mars Acropolis – a design that blends materials used here on Earth to create a classic futurist design that looks like it would be at home in the classic Fritz Lang film. Concrete, steel and Martian soil help form the outer wall that protects the population, while carbon fibre, stainless steel, aluminium and titanium would be used to build the main body.

Three greenhouses contain the vegetation and help filter the air and produce oxygen, and there are decompression chambers at the entrance. On level two, residents can park their shuttles before entering the living quarters and labs, while level three acts as the nerve center – with flight operators and observation posts. It’s joined by a huge water reservoir that flows to the first level for purification.

Designer Chris Starr describes the layout as follows:

The structure serves as a mass research facility, to explore and develop means for additional colonization of the planet. Due to the water vapour contained in the Martian atmosphere, that vapour can be harnessed into usable liquid water, where the condensation is collected from the water vapour, which is filtered back into the reservoir.

mars_one2In all cases, the designs draw attention to the fact that any structures intended for life on Mars will have to achieve a balance between resource management, comfort and entertainment, and security against the elements. At this point, there’s no telling exactly what a Martian settlement will look like; but as always, the truth will likely be stranger than fiction. To see more designs that made it to the Mars Base Challenge this year, check out Thingiverse’s website.

Sources: wired.co.uk, thingiverse.com

“Our Favorite Cimenatic Robots”

Just came across this article in the Globe and Mail today and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s funny when a respectable publication like this one chooses to release something that I myself would have done, or did do, in small increments. In fact, many of the contenders on this list call to mind my little listing on Robots, Cyborgs and AIs which I did awhile back.

But dammit, they left out HAL and Robocop. That’s just plain wrong! Sure, they were trying to keep it to top 10 and felt the need to exclude cyborgs and supercomputers, and did have the good nature to apologize in advance for this, but still…

Here is the list as it appears in the article:

  1. The Terminator
  2. Droids from Star Wars (R2D2 and C3P0)
  3. Wall-E
  4. Replicants from Blade Runner
  5. Maria (Metropolis)
  6. Ash (Alien)
  7. The Iron Giant
  8. Gigolo (AI)
  9. The Stepford Wives
  10. Robby the Robot

Check out the full article here, complete with a gallery and some explanations of why these constitute “our” favorites 😉

 

Sexy Robot Women!

Technically, they’re called Gynoids, which refers to anything which resembles or pertains to the female form. Sounds pretty awkward doesn’t it? But if female robots become a reality, chances are, this is what they’ll be called. Assuming of course that the copyright on Fembots holds.

In any case, in honor of my recent foray into the world of cyborgs, today I thought I’d dedicate a post to honoring the many examples of female androids, cyborgs and robots that have come to us over the years. Whether they come in the form of seductresses, pleasure models, heroines or protectors, gynoids have served as a means of social commentary and exploration over the years.

In addition to being a cool concept and a chance for some expanded anthropological exploration, they tell us much about our perceptions on women, don’t you think? Whereas older representations regarded female robots as little more than seductive assassins who worked for evil men, the newer generations have taken a more holistic approach, giving them human characteristics beyond sex appeal and genuine personalities.

Seems only fair doesn’t it? For if robots, androids and synthetic humans are meant to make us question what is real and what being human is, than surely the female robots need to do more than just look good and lead men astray. Anything else would just be stupid! But I digress, here are some examples of gynoids, fembots and artificial women that have come to us over the years.

Annalee Call:
“I should have known. No human being is that humane.” Interesting observation. That is how Ellen Ripley, or rather her part alien clone described this synthetic woman from Alien: Resurrection. An Auton, a type of second-generation synthetic, she and others like were designed by robots to revitalize the flagging synthetics industry in the 24th century.

According to franchise sources, this plan failed when the Autons rebelled against their handlers in a bloody incident known as “The Recall”. As a result, Call was a member of a dying race that was forced to live in secret and hide amongst regular human beings.

Interestingly enough, Call’s programming seemed to include ethical and religious subroutines, both of which had a profound influence over her behavior. In the course of the film, it became evident that she joined the crew of the Betty so she could gain access to the Auriga where Ripley was being cloned. It was her intent to terminate Ripley and therefore terminate the project before it could produce a new line of xenomorphs.

Call distinguished herself in the Alien universe by being the first female synthetic, preceded by Ash and Bishop, and followed by David 8. I guess the moral of the story is that just because your synthetic doesn’t mean you have to have a synthetic wang!

Cameron:
And here’s the beautiful Summer Glau, who I’m honoring for the second time for her role as Cameron from Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles. Named in honor of series creator James Cameron, this new model of Terminator was also inspired heavily by his original concept. According to the many description Cameron had made, Terminators were “infiltration units that could blend in with humanity.”

In keeping with this, Cameron was designed to physically resemble a teenage female who could mimic human emotions. This made her especially effective at blending in with people, for who could suspect a pretty young lady of being a killer cyborg? Well, get between her and her target and you’d soon find out!

Which brings me to her mission. In the series, she served a similar purpose to Arny from T2. That is to say, that in the future, the resistance captured her and reprogrammed her to act as John and Sarah Conner’s protector in the past. This she did very well, because as we all saw, he grew up to become Christian Bale. And aside from some anger management issues, he led the Resistance to victory!

Caprica Six:
Now here’s a woman who fanboys and nerds would do sick and horrible things just to get within an arms length of. I hope her sake she has a mighty big security detail! As the femme fatale and blonde bombshell of the re-imagined Galactic series, she was the Cylon model (ha!) who was responsible for seducing Gaius Baltar and getting access to the Colonial Defenses Mainframe. Because of this, she was instrumental in the genocide of the Twelve Colonies.

Yet strangely, she was also instrumental in bringing the the Colonial fleet and Cylon race together, or at least the portion of them that wanted a reconciliation between the two sides. Because every Six was slightly different from the last, her model went through many changes in appearance and disposition. Whereas her “Caprica” self was quite cool, and powerfully seductive, her later incarnations were more emotional and heartfelt.

As if to keep track with this emotional transformation, her appearance began to change as well. Her hair went from being suicide blonde to sandy and her outfits also became somewhat more conservative. In short, she could do it all. She could be evil, loving, nurturing, compassionate, a murdered, and a sacrificial lamb. But always, she looked damn good doing it!

Fembots:
Sure, they aren’t exactly the most unique or groundbreaking example of gynoids, but they were funny and actually kind of inspired. Taken from the series The Six Million Dollar Man, fembots were infiltration units that were designed to impersonate real people. In Austin Powers, they are satirically portrayed as seductresses in the employ of Dr. Evil.

Here, there duties appear to be twofold: One, seduce Austin Powers or whoever else they are programmed to kill. Two, to shoot their quarry using boob-mounted guns. And like their 6 MDM counterparts, their identities can be easily revealed by simply pulling off their faceplates.

Getting them around some kind of electrical equipment also seems to interfere with their systems as well, as was demonstrated by Austin in the second movie when he began using a universal remote and found that “Vanessa” began responding to it. And as that encounter also demonstrated, they could always self-destruct if they found themselves cornered. Oh, and Austin also demonstrated that being sexy could destroy them, since no one can apparently resist his pudgy, hairy body! Ick!

Jessica:
When it comes to female robots, and sci-fi movies, here is an example that is so often overlooked. Taken from the cult hit Screamers, which was based on PKD’s short story “Second Variety”, Jessica was a type 4 Screamer, the most advanced model to date. As part of a series of “Autonomous Mobile Sword” – a race of self-replicating intelligent machines – she was distinguished from the others by being the most human.

Whereas type 1 was little more than a burrowing killing machine, type 2 was a wounded soldier and type 3 a small child. Each one became more and more complex, designed to infiltrate deeper and deeper into an enemies camp. With type 4, Jessica was not only meant to infiltrate, but to gain deep access and the trust of her comrades before going active and killing everyone.

In her own words, “We can smile, we can cry. We can bleed… we can fuck.” Minus the last part, this was how she managed to infiltrate a NEB (New Economic Bloc) base and lure in the unsuspecting representatives of the Coalition camp. Apparently, it was her mission to bring the last combattants of the war on Sirius 6B together so they all but one (Hendricksson, played by Peter Weller) would lead her to the survivor ship they had stowed away. This ship was meant to take a single person back to Earth, in the event of catastrophe.

In the end, Jessica sacrificed herself to save Hendricksson so he could get off the planet unencumbered. However, the revelation that she was a new type of AMS that could pass for human in every way possible made on thing clear. Having sterilized Sirius 6B of all life, not just the enemy’s, they were intent on making their way back to Earth, looking for new prey to stalk and kill! Cool huh?

The Stepford Wives:
Now here is an example of female robots that carries with it some genuine social commentary! Written in 1972 by famed author Ira Levin, this novel tells the story of how a group of in a fictional small town (called Stepford) have been replaced by machines so that they may better represent their husband’s and societies ideal of “womanhood”.

According to the story, the town of Stepford is run by a men’s club who’s founder was a former “imagineer” for Disney. In addition, many of its members are scientists and artists. together, they managed to come up with the ability to create life-like robots that could not only look like women, but play the part of doting, docile housewives to a tee!

Of course, by novel’s end, all the women in Stepford have been replaced by these robots and the conspiracy seems poised to absorb any new arrivals. Designed to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of social engineering and blatant sexism, the Stepford Wives took a pretty dim view of female robots, don’t you think? I mean, who’s to say these fembots don’t have their own agenda, like they’re just waiting for their husbands to go to work so they can plot their demise? Might make a good sequel…

TX:
“So she’s an Anti-Terminator… Terminator? You’ve got to be shitting me.” Anry was definitely not shitting him! Here we have the villainess of the Terminator 3 movie and the woman that managed to kick Arny’s ass… a couple of times! As the lastest model to roll of the Cyberdine assembly line, the TX was a sort of hybrid of previous models with some added features thrown in.

Basically, this meant that the TX had an armored cybernetic chassis with polymorphic-alloy segments thrown in. This allowed her to adjust her appearance, much like the T-1000, but left her with a hardened endoskeleton that could not be frozen or melted as the 1000 was.

In addition, her right arm could transform into various weapons, taking on the form of a plasma cannon, a flame thrower, an articulated claw; whatever the moment required. Her ability to interface with computer systems also gave her a decided edge, especially over the obsolete T-800 models which kept showing up to defend John Conner!

Because Conner had been living off the grid for so long, this new breed of Terminator was tasked with located the people who would become his lieutenants in the future and kill them. However, that quickly changed when Conner showed up protected by yet another Austrian-sounding T-800! In the end, she was destroyed when a damaged Arny plugged his remaining hydrogen power cell in her mouth and set it to explode.

Maria:
Ah yes, the original gynoid! The fembot who inspired all subsequent generations of female machines. Taken from the classic movie Metropolis, Maria was a scientists attempt to resurrect his dead wife that went terribly wrong. After taking on the form of the working-class hero, the flesh and blood Maria, this female robot was intended to discredit her and undermine the proletarian movement that was looking to revolt.

But ultimately, the Maria bot doesn’t conform to anyone’s expectations. Instead, she ends up causing jealous feuds amongst rich men in a night-club and sowing dissent amongst the poor in the worker city. And to top it all off, she breaks with Maria’s policy of non-violent change by urging the workers to revolt against their oppressors. After the chaos dies down, the mobs of workers blame Maria for their plight and burn her at the stake, revealing her to be a robot.

Out of this commentary on class consciousness and distinction, it is interesting to see what role Maria played. As an artificial human, she is not only a plot device but a commentary on the dangers of runaway technology. Invented by a scientist who is using technology to overcome death, she eventually becomes his and many other people’s undoing. But at the same time, there was an element of misogyny in how she was portrayed.

Whereas the flesh and blood Maria was peaceful, nurturing and a sort of Mother Mary figure, the robot Maria was a vile temptress who drove men to madness and acts of violence. And in the end, these acts were turned against her and she was burned, which is presented as a good thing in the end. Yeah, kinda sexists I’m thinking. But alas, she was the original and borne of a previous age. The concept has evolved quite a bit ever since… Read on to learn more!

Rachel Tyrell:
“How can it not know what it is?” “I think she’s beginning to suspect.” That was Deckard Cain’s reaction when he learned that Rachel was a Replicant. Tyrell’s response was equally telling. Something like that, you just can’t keep quiet for long!

As part of their experiment to make their Replicants more controllable, Rachel was a newer model that had been fitted with artificial memories. For all intents and purposes, she thought she was the late niece of Mr. Tyrell himself. When she learned otherwise, she began to experience a bit of an existential crisis, let me tell you!

On the one hand, she was devastated to know that all her memories were in fact false, at least to her, and that her existence was basically a lie. On the other, there was the conundrum of what to do about her mutual attraction with Deckard Cain, a man who specializes in hunting her kind down and “retiring” them.

In the end, she and Deckard resolve this little problem by accepting their feelings and running off together. Since she was apparently designed to have an indefinite lifespan, and be “more human than human”, it seemed only natural that she accept what she is and live out her life as if she really were. Though somewhat frail by modern standards, her character was central to the plot of Blade Runner. And let’s not forget that she saved Deckard’s life and he’s supposed to be a one man death squad!

Final Thoughts:
Well, what can you say about Robot Women from over the ages? Well for one, they’re pretty damn sexy, that seems to be a rule. Might be a tad sexist, but it doesn’t diminish their worth any. What counts in the end is what roles they play. From their early days as mere vixens meant to tempt and kill the heroes, they’ve evolved to fill the same role occupied by male robots. Allowing audiences to explore the deeper questions of what it means to be human, and how the line between artificial and real can be blurred to the point where we can no longer tell the difference.

Okay, even I’m beginning to sense the cheese factor here! I mean, does anybody really buy this social commentary angle? Really? Ah, maybe there is some room for intellectual content here. And maybe how they are portrayed really does tell us something about society at large and its perceptions of women. But for the most part, I think sexy robot women are just plain cool. There, I said it!

Until next time, treat robot women as equals… to robot men! Ugh, that’s a whole nuther can of worms and I’m not getting into that right now!

May The Fourth Be With You!

Yes, it is now May 4th, making it officially Star Wars Day! And in honor of this momentous occasion, I’ve decided to dedicate the next few days to reviewing the classic movies which started it all. Yes, those movies, the ones that made Lucas filthy freaking rich and perverted his sense of creativity.

But I’ve already ranted enough about those… ahem, other movies. Today is all about honoring the good things about this franchise and pop culture phenomena. And it really was a phenomena wasn’t it? When it comes to setting trends, box office records, and inspiring an entire generation of movie makers and movie-goers, few things can measure up to Star Wars.

In fact, part of the reason the fanboys reacted so badly to the prequels was because they loved the originals so much. Were it not for the intense love inspired by the originals, the new ones would never have been able to inspire such hate. Funny how that works…

First up, and in honor of May the 4th, is the original Star Wars, or as its extended title reads:

Episode IV: A New Hope
Plot Synopsis:
The movie opens with a crawl that divulges the bare bones of the movie’s premise. Basically, there’s  an evil Galactic Empire, a band of Rebels, and things are pretty tense ever since the latter won their first victory against the former. But in truth, the audience got all they needed from the opening visual sequence, a touch of cinematic genius if ever there was one!

For starters, we see a small ship running for its life, being pursued by a very large ship that is chasing it down. This tells us two key things: the Rebels are a small but committed band that are fighting for their existence against a very large, very powerful foe. The massive ship and the way it is making a slow, lengthy crawl over the camera lets us see the power and reach of the Empire, and establishes some dramatic tension which last well past the first few minutes.

Meanwhile, the ship is disabled and boarded. Imperial troopers, decked out in their white suits of armor, very clinical and faceless looking, board and kill all the defenders. Then in walks Darth Vader, who stands a head taller than the rest, is clad all in black, and very clearly means business! Cut to the droids odd-couple, C3P0 and R2D2, who’ve been scurrying around since the action started. Though we don’t know who she is at first, we see Princess Leia giving something to the latter, which under the circumstances, is of obvious importance. Shortly thereafter, they eject in an escape pod to the planet Tatooine, located below.

Leia gets her formal introduction after Vader kills the ship’s Captain and brings her forward to demand answers. She’s a member of the Imperial Senate, and apparently also a member of the Rebel Alliance. The reason their ship was boarded was because a certain set of plans, pertaining to the Death Star, were stolen and traced to their ship. After getting nothing from her, the Imperial officers deduce that the escape pod must have contained them and pursue it to Tatooine’s surface.

In time, C3P0 and R2D2 wind up becoming the property of a moisture farmer named Owen Lars. His nephew, a young man named Luke, quickly establishes himself as the movie’s protagonist. In addition to wanting to get off Tatooine, he also dreams of being a pilot and finding out more about his father, a man whom he knows virtually nothing about. Like all classical heroes, his will be a journey of self-discovery which will take him across the galaxy and fundamentally change him.

Naturally, his surrogate parents are afraid to let him go, alluding to the fact that his father’s legacy is not something they want him to be a part off. But in the meantime, Luke has a more immediate problem on his hands. After seeing a fragment of the recording of Princess Leia and learning that R2 was intended to meet a man named Obi-Wan Kenobi, a man whom Luke suspects is actually Ben Kenobi who lives in the deep desert. After hearing of this, R2 runs off, forcing Luke and C3P0 to run after him…

They find him, and Ben Kenobi, after a near-death encounter with some Sand People. After chasing them off and tending to Luke, Ben reveals that he is in fact Obi Wan, and takes Luke and the droids back to his pad to talk. Luke learns, much to his delight, that Obi-Wan knew his father and that he was in fact a war hero and a Jedi Knight. His lightsaber is still in Obi-Wan’s possession, which he gives to Luke to play with. This was audiences first glimpse of one of the coolest weapons in sci-fi history, and impressively, it was done on a rather meager budget!

In any case, Obi-Wan sees R2’s recording in full. Leia reveals that she has come into possession of the Death Star plans, intended to deliver them to her father on Alderaan, but was intercepted in transit. R2 now holds them, and they still must be delivered. The recording ends with her pleading with Obi-Wan to help the Rebels. He asks Luke to accompany him so he can learn more about The Force and his father, but Luke is naturally reluctant. He can’t leave so long as he has ties and family on Tatooine that need him… Ooh, foreshadowing!

Cut to the Death Star, the infamous Imperial weapon of terror. Its commander, Grand Moff Tarkin, makes his first appearance, as do the other senior commanders. After some exposition on just how freakishly powerful the Death Star is, it is also revealed that until the plans are found, there is a danger. On top of that, there’s also the consensus that the Death Star needs to be tested by blowing up its first planet. Also, with Leia aboard and not talking, Tarkin concludes that they can kill two birds with one stone.

Luke and Ben meanwhile find a wreck in the desert, a Jawa landcrawler which had been destroyed by Imperial troopers. Luke quickly realizes that the Imperial troops were searching for his droids. He rushes home to find his uncle and aunt dead and their home destroyed. He then returns to Obi-Wan to tell him that he will come with him after all. The two then travel to the planet’s spaceport, Mos Eisley, to find a spacer who will take them off planet.

After getting past Imperial guards, they are forced to contend with some tough barfolk. Obi-Wan quickly dispatches them with his own lightsaber, and they meet Han Solo shortly thereafter. After being treated to some not so idle boasts about his ship (the Millennium Falcon), Obi-Wan determines that Han’s the man to take them to Alderaan. We, the audience, also learn that he clearly has some debts, and an angry creditor named Jabba. Before he can leave to check on his ship, he’s forced to gun down one of the men Jabba sent to collect.

Getting into orbit and away from the planet prove a might bit difficult given the presence of Imperial troopers and Star Destroyers. But Han wasn’t bullshitting when he said his ship was fast. They dust off, jump into hyperspace (another cool visual experience) and elude their Imperial chasers.

Meanwhile, Takin has the Death Star parked in front of Alderaan, which he threatens to destroy if Leia won’t divulge the location of the Rebel base. She does, telling him their on Dantooine, but Tarkin orders Alderaan destroyed anyway. Seems Dantooine is too remote to provide an effective “demonstration”. But it’s okay, since she was lying through her teeth. When Tarkin learns of this, he’s naturally pissed and orders that Leia be executed.

However, this order coincides with the arrival of the Millennium Falcon. Since their destination has been blown to pieces, the crew fly into a complete and utter debris field, and soon find themselves face to face with the Death Star itself. After getting nabbed with a tractor beam and brought aboard, they are forced to stow away in the Falcon’s secret compartments, where Han usually puts his “special” cargo. After popping out and sneaking past more Imperial troopers, they learn that Leia is aboard the station. Obi-Wan heads off to disable the tractor beam, while Luke convinces Han to take part in a daring rescue. Hijinx ensue!

First, we have Han, Luke and Chewi’s rather clumsy attempt to get Leia out of her cell block. The first phase, getting in, goes off without much trouble (unless you count all the shooting). Unfortunately, phase two, getting out, proceeds less smoothly. After being cornered my reinforcements, Leia orders them to jump into the trash compactor to escape. Only the timely intervention of R2 and 3P0 prevent them from being mashed.

Second, Obi-Wan succeeds in shutting down the tractor beam, but comes face to face with his old apprentice, Darth Vader. A lightsaber duel ensues, crossed beams providing a metaphor for the internal struggle between the righteous teacher and the student who went bad. As they head for the ship, Luke sees Obi-Wan locked in this duel, and is forced to watch as Obi-Wan puts up his blade and lets Vader kill him. But of course, he warns Vader that this will only make him more powerful… something we will understand very soon.

Ultimately, the good guys get away, short on crew member, but it seems their escape was allowed to happen. Knowing that they will set course of the Rebel Base, Vader has a tracking device placed aboard the ship, and the Death Star follows them to a small moon called Yavin 4.

Once there, Leia meets with the Rebel command staff and shares the plans. Knowing that the Death Star is likely en route, they prepare a desperate plan to destroy the Death Star using the one weakness they can discern. An exhaust vent located along the station’s central axis, at the end of a long, well-defended trench! Some two dozen Rebel pilots suit up for the mission, Luke volunteering to help, and asking Han to do the same. But, having been given his reward and eager to pay off his debts, Han says good luck and leaves with Chewi.

After slipping past the Death Stars shields, the Rebel pilots begin fighting it out with the station’s defenses and defenders. However, the assault on the vent itself does not go well. One wing of pilots is shot down trying to make the run, and the one pilot to get off a shot misses and is killed shortly thereafter. It now falls to Luke and what’s left of the attack wing, which includes his old friend Biggs Darklighter. Biggs is killed covering Luke, and he himself appears about to be gunned down by Vader’s own fighter, until someone new shows up and saves his ass!

Seems Han had a change of heart, and after blowing up Luke’s tails and sending Vader’s ship into a tailspin through space, Luke fires off his ordinance and hits the vent dead on! They break off and get away just in time to avoid the massive shock wave that blowing up such a massive station produces! The Rebel Alliance is saved, and the Empire has been dealt a mighty blow. However, as we see, Vader is still alive and makes it away, letting us know that the war (and movie franchise) will go on…

What Worked So Well About It!:
Where to begin. You know, its always at this point that critics and fanboys say what was so good about the original movies by comparing them to the new ones. To avoid this needless cliche, and perhaps to be a good sport, I’ll keep comparisons to a minimum. Suffice it to say, part of the reason why the first movie was such a smashing hit was because it tapped in to a certain need which was becoming apparent in the movie-going community. In terms of science fiction, audiences were becoming just the slightest bit tired of dystopian stories and dark visions of the future.

After so much technophobia and misanthropy, the stage seemed set for something positive and heroic to come along and renew people’s faith in humanity and the future. So in a way, Lucas’ masterpiece benefited from good timing, arriving exactly when people needed it to. Such timing had not been seen since the arrival of the Beatles to America, an event which came after the assassination of JFK when young people were looking for something happy and joyful to focus them onto new and positive things.

Another thing which worked in its favor was the fact that Lucas had to contend with limited budgets, an largely inexperienced cast and crew, and just about every mishap imaginable. Being in the position of the underdog, having little expected of him, and having to contend with all kinds of difficulties, what came out of it all is best labelled “art from adversity”. There’s just something so purifying about a noble effort which succeeds despite difficulty, isn’t there? It was like Lucas’ movie was living out its own plot, the committed band of Rebels fighting an evil Empire being a metaphor for Lucas’ own fight with the studios and production companies.

The Weak Parts:
But of course, Lucas also benefited from a great deal of help, which came from the highly experienced and talented hands of John Williams, the cinematography of Gilbert Taylor, and a host of editors who helped clean up his movie once the raw footage was slapped together. Arriving just a few months shy of the films theatrical release, these people saved production of the film in many ways, and demonstrated to Lucas that when it came to shooting and dialogue-writing, he needed some help to make it all work (something he forgot in more recent years!)

In fact, it was because these individuals had arrived late to the production that many weaker elements of the movie survived and became part of the original movie. In several scenes, actors and extras made mistakes which Lucas didn’t notice because he was not accustomed to shooting films. Two prime examples are when a Storm Trooper walks head first into a sliding door on the Death Star, and Mark Hamil yells “Carrie!” to actress Carrie Fisher while they were shooting. These were never edited out, as was some of the lazier acting and poor dialogue.

In fact, Lucas gained a reputation for writing wooden dialogue as he was making this movie. During their initial readings, many of the actors complained that it was unrealistic, unnatural, and completely awkward. These sentiments were brilliantly captured by Harrison Ford when he confronted Lucas and told him, “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it!”.

The Enduring Legacy:
Of course, I could get into all the cultural and cinematic influences that were apparent and helped make the movie such a box office hit. But let’s face it, that’s been done to death! I shall just say that in the end, Lucas knew where to borrow from and could make it all work together. Combining elements like westerns, samurai movies, and allusions to ancient and modern history with an epic story of good versus evil, Lucas’ creation tickled all the right bones and gave audiences what they wanted when they wanted it.

And really, it was one of those rare movies where people felt that there truly was something for everyone. It was not strictly a kids movie (despite what Lucas would later claim) because there was simply so much material and attention to detail which no child would have been able to appreciate. So while the kids (and kids of all ages!) were dazzled with shoot outs, dogfigths and lightsaber duels, the adults were able to appreciate aesthetics borrowed from such classics as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Seven Samurai, Metropolis, and costumes and themes alluding to WWII and Nazi Germany.

And of course, with its smashing performance at the box office, Lucas and his crew now had the freedom and the street cred to make some follow up movies and see his vision through to completion. And in no time at all, all the studios and production companies which had doubted him or told him no were lining up to imitate him and finance whatever Star Wars clone they could find. Lucas, I imagine, got a real kick out of that!

Anyhoo, having spilled so much metaphorical ink on this movie, let me just wrap things up by saying Happy Star Wars Day and be sure to check back soon. Next up, I will be covering the even more famous The Empire Strikes Back, one of the few movies in cinematic history to ever be credited as being “better than the first”. In the meantime, check out this shot from the blooper reel. Keep your eye to the right as the Stormtroopers walk in…

 

“Red Skies: Soviet Sci-Fi”

"The Heavens Call" movie poster (1959)

This morning, I came across a very cool article in Scoop.it, about science fiction as a genre in the former Soviet Union. As it explained, until recently this area has remained virtually unexplored, with historians focusing on the “greats” of the 1920’s – men like Eisenstein – and the “socialist realism” of the 1930’s (aka. Stalinist propaganda). However, between those decades and the opening up of the former Soviet Union in 91, a lot of interesting developments happened. And, interestingly enough, it seems as though sci-fi in the Eastern Bloc went through a similar transition to that in the west.

And let’s not forget that, even though there was a very real wall preventing cultural exchange between East and West during these years, some degree of exchange did take place. Take for example Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of “We“. His classic tale of a super-rationalized world state where emotion and individuality were suppressed and sex served only reproductive purposes had a profound influence on George Orwell, Ayn Rand and (presumably) Aldous Huxley, thought he denied ever reading it.

In addition, Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita (Queen of Mars), a story about a man who travels to Mars and finds a totalitarian government which he helps to topple, inspired a movie adaptation. Made in 1924 and featuring constructivist-style sets, the movie had a profound influence on Fritz Lang, who’s 1927 classic Metropolis featured sets of similar design. The 1957 film Road to Mars, directed by the famous Pavel Klushantsev, contained several slow-motion scenes of astronauts floating weightlessly through space. This movie apparently had a profound influence on Stanley Kubrick and his shooting of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the west was flooded with previously inaccessible stories which began to be adapted (or plagiarized, depending on your point of view). Not the least of these was Hungarian sci-fi writer István Nemere’s story Holtak harca. Translated to “Fight of the Dead”, this story is about a criminal and a police officer who are cryogenically frozen, only to wake up in a future where society has been purged of violent behavior. This story became the basis for the Hollywood movie Demolition Man, not to mention a law suit or two!

In any case, it’s a good read and makes me think I should be on the lookout for added movies and book titles. Here’s the link and I recommend checking it out:

http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/49760

Mega Cities!

Back with another conceptual post, this time about something which I’ve been pretty invested in lately. And it comes from the same general universe inhabited by cyberpunk and dystopian sci-fi. And that thing is the concept of the “Mega City”. As I’m sure I’ve said before, this is not only a very cool concept right out of modern science fiction, its also a genuine sociological and geographical theory.

In fact, it was a French geographer named Jean Gottmann who coined the term “megalopolis” in his 1961 book Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States. He used this term to describe the massive urban region which extended from the suburbs of Boston to those of Washington D.C. The concept quickly caught on, resulting in names like “BosWash” and “Northeast Megalopolis” when referring to the urban sprawl, and igniting the imaginations of science fiction writers and geographical planners.

However, in recent decades, this same concept has been extended to refer to several other “megalopolis'” as well. And not just in the US; such regions have been noticed developing in Canada, Mexico, Europe, East and South Asia. Wherever one urban center appears to be converging with another, through urban sprawl, connecting townships, and major highways, the roots of mega-cities are being laid!

First off, here are some more examples from North America, grouped from North to South, East to West:

Boston-Washington Megalopolis: As already noted, this baby inspired the concept of a megalopolis thanks to the post-war boom and growth of urban centers along the Eastern Seaboard of the US. In addition to having several major urban centers and ports closely linked by major transportation routes, some of the largest suburban developments in North America exist in this region, which have allowed for these major cities to converge by a very noticeable degree. All told, roughly forty-tw0 million people live in the BosWash according to a year 2000 census with projected estimates for 45 million by 2025.
Quebec-Windsor Corridor:
Looking at the nearly unbroken urban landscape which stretches from Quebec city and the Outaouis region all the way down to Windsor on Lake Erie, one could easily get the impression that a mega-city existed throughout these regions, and was merely distributed in a long line because of geographic necessity. Embracing the St.Laurence River corridor and the National Capital Region and Southern Great Lakes Region, the Quebec-Windsor Megalopolis includes such urban centers as Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, London and Winsor and boasts a population of roughly 18 million (as of 2000) and is expected to reach 21 million by 2025.
The Great Lakes Region: An alternative to the Quebec-Windsor megalopolis, which is based entirely in Canada, this megalopolis is based around the Great Lakes region and includes urban centers in in the Midwestern US, the Southern Ontario area of Canada, and parts of Pennsylvania, New York, and Quebec. The region officially extends from the Milwaukee–Chicago to the Detroit–Toronto corridor, and includes Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, Louisville, Ottawa, Rochester, and Toledo. The region had an estimated population of 54 million, as of the 2000 Census and is expected to reach about 65 million by the year 2025.
Piedmont-Atlantic: the Southern US megalopolis, running from Charlotte, North Carolina to Memphis, Tenessee, and embracing the urban regions of Atlanta, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Columbia, and everything in between. Its population as of 2000 was estimated at a modest 15 million, at least by mega-city standards. However, it is expected to reach a good twenty million or more by 2025.
Florida: Named in honor of the fact that all its urban centers are located squarely in the state of Florida, this megalopolis incorporates the urban centers of Coral Springs, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, St. Petersburg, Tallahassee, and Tampa and has also has a relatively modest population of 15 million with expectations to reach 21 and a half by the quarter century.
Texas Triangle and the Gulf Coast: Here are two megalopolis’ that are often considered separately, but which have already converged as far their boundaries are concerned. Thus I think it’s fitting that they be considered as one. From the east, the mega-city range embraces Pensacola and Mobile and extends south and west, with New Orleans in the middle and Corpus Christi at the southernmost tip. However, at the western edge, it then extents north-west, incorporating Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Tulsa, and Wichita. Considered as one, this region boasts a hefty 28 million inhabitants and is expected to reach as high as 40 million in the near future.
So-Cal: Fans of Demolition Man ought to know this one right off the bat (if not, see below). Otherwise known as Southern California range, this region encompasses the north-south coastline and the urban regions of greater Los Angeles, San Diego, Anaheim, Tijuana, and Bakersfield, but also reaches eastward to include Las Vegas. It’s overall populated was posted at 25 million in 2000 with a projected expectation of 35 million by 2025.
No-Cal:
Comparatively small next to its southern cousin, the Northern California Megapolitan region is still an impressive specimen. Reaching both north-south along the coast, and east-west into the interior, this region encompasses the cities of San Jose, San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Stockton, Fresno, and Sacramento. It’s total population, circa 2000, was estimated at roughly 13 million and is expected to reach close to 17 and a half by 2025.
Cascadia:Named in honor of the Cascade Mountain Range, this mega-city, like the mountains extends from north to south and incorporates the urban centers of British Columbia and the states of Washington and Oregon. Beginning with Vancouver and Victoria in Canada and reaching south to include Bellingham, Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and Portland in the south, the region hosts a modest 10 million inhabitants and is expected to actually recede in population! Fans of space and coastal weather, travel here! You will crushed anywhere else!

The World at Large:
Blue Banana: Also known as the “European Megalopolis” or “European Backbone”, this hypothetical mega-cityscape reaches across Western Europe. Stretching along a south to north-east axis (thus forming the shape of a banana), the region runs from Milan in Italy through Southern Germany and the Low Countries and ends in northern Wales. In terms of major cities, the corridor includes Milan, Genoa, Venice, Munich, Luxembourg, Frankfurt, Brussels, London, Manchester and Leeds. It’s total population, hang onto your hats, is estimated at 92.4 million people!
Greater Mexico City: The most populous metropolitan region in the Americas, embracing the entire metropolitan area of the “Valley of Mexico” and boasting a population of over 21 million, according to a 2009 survey conducted by National Population Council of Mexico. Although it does not embrace multiple urban centers, its large landmass and density are characteristic or a mega-city.
Indo-Gangetic Plain: Also known as the “Northern Indian River Plain”, referring to its geographic boundary in Northern India along the Indus and Ganges river basins. The area is traditionally very dense due to its fertile soil and strategic locations between river basins, the Himalayan mountain chain to the east, and the Iranian plateau to the west. In terms of urban centers, this corridor extends between Pakistan and India to Bangladesh and includes the cities of Karachi, Faisalabad, Islamabad, Lahore, Delhi, Kanpur, Dhaka, and Kolkata. Overall, roughly 1 billion people – 1/7th of the world’s total population – live in this region, making it the most population dense area in the world!
Pearl River Delta: Located in Guangdong province in the People’s Republic of China, the Pearl River Delta is one of the most densely urbanised regions in the world and one of the main hubs of China’s economic growth. This is due largely to the fact that such coastal centers as Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Kowloon City, and Macua are all located in this relatively small region. In addition to these tightly packed urban centers, suburban developments have led to many geographers to think of the area as a single mega-city. According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, the overall population of the delta region is estimated at 120 million people, and growing fast!
Taiheiyo Belt:
Over to Japan, where densely populated urban centers have been a fact of life for nearly half a century. Translated literally, the term “Taiheiyo beruto” means Pacific Belt, referring to the series of linked metropolises that are nestled on Japan’s western shores. Officially, the region extends from greater Utsonomiya in the north, through to Tokyo harbor, then follows the coastline circuitously through Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, and ends at Saga on the southern island of Satsuma. These areas account for the bulk of Japan’s population, its industrial base, and its major economic centers. In addition, it packs a population of 83 million into a very narrow corridor.
Yangtze River Delta: Also known as the Golden Triangle of the Yangtze, this megalopolitan region has much in common with its cousin on the Pearl River. Here again, we see a bunch of urban centers built along one of the traditional river routes that are clustered around the mouth of it. In addition, this area also accounts for a very large and growing portion of China’s economic and industrial infrastructure. Linked by high-speed rail, major highways, bridges, and urban sprawl, this region unites the cities of Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi, and a whole lot of others! In total, roughly 100 million people live in this densely packed area in addition to its many farms, factories, and transportation hubs; which, in conjunction with its location at the mouth of the Yangtze, makes it the leading cause of maritime pollution in the Pacific Ocean.

Examples in fiction:
Mega-City One: Taken from the graphic novel of Judge Dredd, MC-1 is the setting of the majority of the series. According to the series’ background info, MC-1 grew naturally out of urban sprawl between all the major cities of the East Coast US. It was only officially made into the dark, overcrowded and heavily encapsulated place that one sees in the comics after WWIII took place. It’s current population in the series is estimated at over 400 million, the majority of whom lives in massive apartment blocks that house 50,000 people apiece. And of course, just about everything is automated, all resources (including food!) are recycled, and unemployment is almost universal. Other mega-cities are mentioned in the series as well, including Mega-City Two, which encompasses the greater urban sprawl of Southern California.
Metropolis: Not to be confused with the setting for Superman, this city was the focal point for events in the classic movie of the same name. When asked where he got the idea for such a world, director Fritz Lang said that he was inspired by his first glimpse of the New York city skyline. While traveling there by ship in 1924, he saw skyscrapers for the first time, and these left quite the impression on him. This was evidenced in his conception for a massive future city where buildings were designed to look like artistic representations of the Tower of Babel, the rich lived on high in the sun and the workers lived in the dark depth below.
No-Cal/So-Cal: The setting of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which California had split into two regions, the one centering around the greater San Fransisco region in the north, and the other around the LA region in the south. Most events in the story take place in San Francisco, particularly the Golden Gate Bridge, which has become a home for indigents and squatters (hence the name of the trilogy).
San Angeles: The setting for the movie Demolition Man, in which a cryogenicaly frozen LA police officer is woken up in 2032 and told that it is now called San Angeles, which resulted from the merger of Los Angeles, Santa Barabara and San Diego after the “Big One” Earthquake of 2010 leveled most of LA and Southern California.
The Sprawl: Otherwise known as the BAMA, or Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis, this mega-city serves as the setting of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson. But unlike the Boston-Washington megalopolis which is likely to have inspired it, this axis extends as far south as Atlanta and is contained beneath a series of geodesic domes.

Conclusions?:
For starters, one can see without the need for much imagination where the concept for “Metropolis”, “Mega-City One”, “San Angeles”, and “The Sprawl” came from. For the last century, at least, megalopolis’ have been slowly becoming a reality, and this in turn has been reflected in our literature. And when it comes to dystopian science fiction, what could be more dark and gritty than a big, overcrowded cityscape? Especially one where differences in wealth and modern technology make everything just a little more interesting and dangerous? Like most people, I can’t imagine ever wanting to live in such a world, but damn if I don’t want to read about it from time to time!