Favorite Cult Classics (Part the Second)

Welcome back! As promised, the second half of my nostalgic, cult classic favorites for you to peruse! Let me know what you think, and feel to add some contenders of your own. Cult hits are nothing if not personal, and what constitutes a classic is open to interpretation. Okay, six to ten, here goes:

2001: A Space Odyssey:
Yes, this movie deserves top billing for being a classic! And yet, the movie really doesn’t seem to garner much appreciation from audiences, not unless they are self-professed film buffs or hard sci-fi fans. Not sure I qualify for either, but I loved this movie for the simple reason that it was packed full of mind-blowing themes. Much like Akira, it was chock-full of things that got my young mind thinking and completely shaped my outlook on science fiction.

Sure, there are those who complain that this movie is boring and esoteric, but I found all that a fitting price for the kick-ass subject matter, not to mention the mind-blowing climax. You got a mystery, speculations about human evolution, ancient aliens, space exploration, and existential singularities! All the while, the weight of the philosophical implications are weighing at your mind…

And let’s not forget how inspiration this movie proved to be. Today, the concept of ancient astronauts, aliens who came to Earth millions of years ago and tampered with human evolution, has become all the rage. From Star Trek to Stargate, Battlestar Galactica to Prometheus, the concept of ancient astronauts has played out. And frankly, 2001 has them all beat! Between Kubrick and Clarke, their concept of the aliens and how they altered the course of evolution on Earth was the most realistic I have ever seen.

But I think what I liked best about was the fact that the movie was the subtle nature of the whole thing. At once speculative, philosophical, and visually stunning, this movie was characteristic of Kubrick, who preferred to convey things visually rather than coming out and telling people what was going on. You never really quite knew what happened during that eye-popping final scene, but those who love sci-fi and imaginative filmaking were sure to have ideas!

Alien:
Granted, this movie wasn’t exactly under-appreciated, but compared to the lavish attention the rest of the franchise has garnered- even though it was all downhill after Aliens – this first installment truly was the diamond in the rough. Not only did it have a cool concept, awesome set designs and a kick-ass back story, the direction and cinematography captures the story’s sense of dread and claustrophobia perfectly.

Little wonder then why this movie spawned an entire franchise, because it really did have everything. You had your blue-collar peeps working for the major interstellar company (Weyland-Yutani), a frightening discovery made on an uncharted planet, a mysterious derelict belonging to an unknown race, and a terrifying creature awakened from its slumber. And not just any kind of creature, but a complex symbiote that was designed for and possessed of a single purpose.

Or as Ash put it: “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” He had a point didn’t he? In fact, all structures in this movie were pure genius, whether it was the Nostromo, the Derelict, or the Facehugger and Chestbuster combo. As with everything Scott does, attention to detail and the careful construction of a universe was paramount. Every set was richly detailed, well shot, and clearly made to elicit the right feel and impressions on the audience.

Much of the credit for this goes to H.R. Giger as well, the surrealist artist who brought Lovecraftian horror to the alien concept and set of the alien ship. Years later, I still find myself tuning in just to get a glimpse of that Gothic reconstruction, or to see the Space Jockey sitting in its chair, the tell-tale hole punching through its chest. Few movies have managed to capture that same sense of awe and wonder for me, with the possible exceptions of 2001 and Akira

Johnny Mnemonic:
Some people might think I’m crazy for listing this movie as a personal classic, but it can’t be helped! And my reasons are pretty simple. On the one hand, this movie kind of has that “so bad, it’s good” thing going on, but at the same time, I also felt it possessed some real signs of quality. Sure, the acting was pretty wooden, the fight choreography total crap, and the low-budget nature apparent throughout. But it was still a pretty faithful adaptation of Gibson’s work and introduced to that world at a still-young age. Hence why I come back to it every few years just to see it again.

Filmed in the mid-90’s, this movie is an adaptation of the short story by William Gibson and previewed a lot of what he wrote in Neuromancer. For example, you’ve got the big bad corporations, the cyberspace jockeys, freelance assassins, Yakuza, and the character Molly Millions. Things are also set in “The Sprawl”, the megapolis that stretches from Boston to Atlanta and is contained in geodesic domes, and the look and feel is definitely of the cyberpunk variety.

Into all this, Gibson introduced the revolutionary concept of mnemonic couriers, people who have “wetwire” implants in their brains that allow them to carry vast quantities of data from point A to point B. Basically, these couriers are the answer of what to do in a world where information is the most precious commodity, and all databases are vulnerable to hacking and protected by “Black ICE” – hostile Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics (aka. viruses)

And, in keeping with Gibson’s style, the story involves a titanic corporation that is fighting to maintain its monopolistic grip, while freelancers, smugglers and assorted little people are fighting to undermine them and distribute the information freely. Naturally, the main character of Johnny is an unlikely hero who is forced to take a break from looking out for number one and help others for a change. Might sound cheesy, and a little cliche, but it works and delivers on Gibson’s style. At the very least, it’s a guilty pleasure flick for me.

Screamers:
Now here’s a movie that’s high on the pleasure, low on the guilt. While a low-budget sci-fi flick that was (like Johnny Mnemonic) produced and filmed entirely in Canada, it had many signs of quality that immediately made it a cult hit. There’s the post-apocalyptic setting, the frightening tone, and the Cold War feel of the thing, updated for the 90’s. All the while, there is the knowledge that this is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Second Variety, which sort of makes it a must-see of PKD fans.

Much like in the original story, the plot of the film involves a race of self-producing, self-upgrading machines that are designed to infiltrate enemy territory and eliminate all combatants. But of course, things begin to go awry when the people who produced them realize that they have upgraded to the point where they can impersonate human beings. And whereas the original story was set on Earth and took place between the US and Russia, the updated story takes place on Sirius 6b, a pining planet that became the front line between a the political-economic entity known as the NEB  and those who chose to resist its rule.

Personally, I felt the updated version works. Not only does the conflict seem more relevant, being between a mega-corporate entity and a coalition of workers and dissenters, but the off-world setting also feels more realistic. Perhaps it was the fact that in the post-Cold War world, nuclear war between two superpowers didn’t seem a likelihood anymore. Or it could just be that the whole NEB angle was reminiscent of Weyland-Yutani and Alien. All I know is, I liked it!

What’s more, a good deal of attention went into creating the setting and modelling the Screamers – aka. the automated machines that kill people. Designed to be the perfect terror weapons, they emit a high-pitched “scream” before making their attack, and can toy with their targets for some time before moving. This concept, combined with some good shooting, really created a sense of tension which is felt throughout. And of course, the paranoia which is engendered by the appearance of human-like machines was a very nice touch! A good movie, and a fitting adaptation which managed to capture PKD’s cautionary tale about the dangers of runaway progress.

Time Bandits:
And last, here is the classic time traveling tale that I first saw in my childhood. Recently, my wife was told by a coworker that she should ought to see it, and my memory was jogged! Yes, this is indeed a cult classic, and one which is deserving of plenty of kudos and praise. Well cast, well written, witty and poignant, it’s one of those quintessential 70’s movies which has been rediscovered by several generations of film buffs and sci-fi fans.

The story opens with an imaginative and historically-minded child who lives in an overly-bourgeois neighborhood with his materially-possessed family. But upon realizing that there is a time-portal in his wall and that people from the past and future can come through it, his world is turned upside down. Quickly, he become the unwitting companion in a group of dwarves who are traveling through time, stealing precious artifacts, and being pursued by both the “Supreme Being” and an evil sorcerer.

Immediately, one can see the layered and inspired plot taking shape here. On the one hand, you have some decidedly Judea-Christian elements, plus a tale of childhood imagination and escapism. The dichotomy of the Supreme Being who possesses the power of time travel and the sorcerer who wants it for himself are representative of God and Lucifer, after a fashion. The dwarves who stole this power for themselves are a sort of Icaran allegory, or possibly Adam and Eve once they ate from the tree of knowledge. And ultimately, the way they are saved in the end from evil represents their redemption.

All the while we are left wondering if the boy is merely dreaming, or if what he is experiencing is real, which is an element that is intrinsic to all tales of childhood fantasies. On the one hand, the protagonists flights of fancy are seen as a weakness and immaturity to those around them, whereas we tend to see as it a rare gift to see past the surface. Should it all be a fantasy, then the story is left without a formal sense of resolution; but if it is real, then the hero has been vindicated and proven right. Appropriately, the movie plays with the two possibilities, going back and forth, but then giving strong hints at the end that it was in fact real. So really, you have a story that is inspired, imaginative, and also suspenseful!

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Well, that’s my top ten list for the best cult classic movies of all time. What’s yours? I know I have a few in common with some people ’round these parts, and I also know that a few were previously unheard of. Hence why I want to here from others. I have a feeling there are some which I need to see and would very much enjoy. Already, I’m poised to watch Sunshine, A Boy and His Dog, and a few others which I’ve heard good things about. And I hope that in the course of swapping lists, I might be able to find a few more I’d like to see. Take care, and enjoy the rest of the long-weekend, those of who are reading this in Canada. As for the Yanks in the audience, and the rest of the world for that matter, enjoy the work week 😉

Alien Versus Predator (2010 game)

Welcome all to my first video game review! It took me awhile to figure out which I’d start with, but after some thought, I figured AVP – the 2010 game – would be as good a place as any. And given the recent release of Prometheus, I thought it would also be appropriate, not the least of which was because some of that movie’s content ruled out certain aspects of this game.

But mainly I’ve decided to review it because it was very cool. The game play, the graphics, and the storyline were all consistent with some of the best traditions of the Alien versus Predator franchise. And of course, there were plenty of weaknesses too, which were also consistent with the AVP game series. And above all, it was a fun play, assuming you can get it to work. No offense to the makers, but this game required a beast of a machine to run at a decent resolution and with all the bells and whistles!

Oh yes, I should also mentioned that this is a Steam game, meaning it’s uploaded and played through the Steam interface and is networked to the site during game play. As such, players get to unlock achievements and gain points for completing various levels, beating difficulty settings, and accomplishing assorted tasks. Now that’s all covered, onto the game’s story!

Storyline:
The plot of the game involves three intertwining plot threads which come together in a grand climax once all three campaigns are played. The first involves the perspective of the Colonial Marines, which have been dispatched to the planet to deal with a Xenomorph outbreak.

As usual, they are enforcing Weyland Yutani company policy, which as usual involves rescuing a research outpost which has been conducting Xenomorph research. Once in orbit, the Marine ship is attacked by an unidentified alien ship which blows it apart and sends its drop ship tumbling towards the surface.

The Marine campaign begins shortly after the dropship forced to crash land on the planet. The gamer then wakes up on a stretcher in the cargo bay, the others having left you behind to go off and deal with the problem. This necessitates that you find your way to them and begin reinforcing them. For the most part, this involves fighting xenos on your own, but here and there, you get to shoot it out with some backup. Of course, they usually die in the process…

Things change when your team leader, Tequila, is captured and you have to go and rescue her. At this point, you are being directed by an android who is deep within the facility and reveals what’s being going on there. And of course, this leads to an eventual confrontation with a Predator (aka. “Hunter”), which just happens to be one of the most challenging parts of the game. But of course, confrontations with a Queen and Praetors (queens that have not fully matured) are also pretty tough. Once that is done, you work your way to Tequila who has been placed inside a cocooning room, a la Aliens, and who is already infected.

Once you save Tequila, you and she work your way to the android helper and the medical facility where the outbreak took place. Here, she explains that the experiment went wrong (as always) and begins a procedure to remove the parasite from Tequila’s stomach. This is interrupted when another android, who has been programmed with the mind of Mr. Weyland (played by Lance Henriksen), cuts off the power to the lab. You are therefore forced to put Tequila into cryo-stasis to keep her safe and alive until help arrives.

Your next mission is to find your way to the Weyland droid and find the tracker he has so you can summon a new dropship to you. He is currently hiding in an underground temple which WY have been excavating. The temple, like just about everything else on the planet, is of Hunter construction and its hundreds of thousands of years old. And of course, they came upon preserved specimens of Xenomorph eggs, which prompted them to begin hatching them. Once you defeat the Weyland droid and grab a hold of the transmitter, the dropship arrives and carries you and Tequila to safety in orbit.

But of course, there’s a double-cross. It seems that the personnel aboard the dropship are taking their orders from another of the Weyland droids. They signal that they have a live Xenomorph specimen (in her) and also the emergency transmitter, which just happens to contain all of Weyland’s research. The key bit of information, which he uncovered from his extensive research inside the underground temple, is the location of the Xenomorph homeworld!

Onto the Alien campaign where things take place from a single Xenomorph that has been bred inside the WY facility. This campaign, as noted, overlaps with the Marine (and later Hunter) campaigns, and involves the Xenomorph’s mission to escape the facility and begin breeding. The first step is to escape confinement from the medical bay and set the others free.

Once this is done, you work your way through the facilities sewers, taking down all personnel you see and attaching “Facehuggers” to them. All the while, the Queen directs you via pheromones, which act as a sort of telepathy, to help her establish a hive on the planet’s Refinery. Here she rests, until the arrival of the Marines causes things to come to a head.

From this point onward, your job is to fight and kill the Marines while simultaneously taking out the facilities systems. After that’s done, you work your way into the temple complex where Hunters show up to intercept you. After killing them, you are forced to battle an Elite Hunter until he’s weak enough to be subdued and then infected by a Facehugger. This gives rise to the hybrid Hunter-Xenomorph (aka. Predalien) that is central to the Hunter campaign.

However, things go awry when the Refinery is destroyed and the Queen is trapped inside. This event, which is part of the Marine campaign, causes the Xenomorph to be stunned and captured. It is taken back to the Marine vessel, where it then escapes and sets up a new hive, becoming the new Queen!

And thus the Predator campaign begins, with the arrival of the Hunter ship and its destruction of the Marine vessel. As an Elite Hunter you are then deployed to the planet to begin hunting the Marines, as punishment for desecrating their temple site, and killing any Xenomorphs that have escaped. You are also responsible for locating any dead Hunters and retrieving their trophies, as well as collecting weapons and sacred artifacts.

Your missions then involve infiltrating the Marines bases, disabling their systems, and releasing the xenomorphs. You then find yourself following the “Rookie” Marines path, which leads to the sacred temple where you are forced to battle Praetorians. Moving inside to the underground temple, you come upon the Weyland Yutani party and its compliment of combat androids. After destroying them and retrieving the last Hunter artifacts, you are forced to do battle with the hybrid Predalien.

Once this is done, you are ordered to set the temple to self-destruct, in order to cleanse the taint of the human’s presence and ensure that none of the secret’s within ever fall into their hands again. However, unbeknownst to you, WY has already retreived the vital inro about the xenomorph’s homeworld. Once you return to your ship. the same info is shared from the sacred Hunter mask which you retrieved from the planet below. Apparently, this information has been lost to the Hunters, who have been breeding Xenomorph’s in captivity for training and now seek to contain them, lest someone else (i.e. the human race) try to breed them as a weapon.

Hence, all three storylines come together and point in one direction: the Xenomorph homeworld, where the next chapter is sure to take place!

Good Points:
This game’s positive aspects should be obvious to anyone. As an AVP game, the game play is automatically very fun and intense. This applies to the Marine campaign, with its assortment of Pulse Rifles, Incinerators and Smartguns, though I honestly didn’t care much for the hand guns, shotguns and sniper rifles. Those weapons just seemed clunky and kind of primitive, given the time period in which everything is happening.

And of course, the Predator campaign was pretty damn awesome, given the claws and plasmacasters. The way the equipment was updated to be a little more limiting in terms of energy requirements was also a nice touch, since in AVP2 the Predator’s arsenal was a little too easy to maintain and hence pretty overwhelming. However, the new limitations they put on available weapons was something I did not like. Aside from your claws and plasma gun, all you get is the disc and the combistick. What happened to the net guns and claw launchers?

But what really impressed me was the Xenomorph campaign, where your cheif weapons are your claws, tail, and sheer mobility. You can climb walls, jump from surface to surface, and sneak attack like nobody’s business! You can also facebite with your little mouth, which is pretty damn gory and awesome! The way you can retrain people to put a Facehugger on them also adds to the overall level of detail and coolness of this aspect.

On top of it all, the feel of the game is spot on. When dealing with AVP, one immediately expects a level of intensity and intrigue which can only come from dealing with scary Xenomorphs and deadly Hunters! As the Marine, you constantly have the feeling of vulnerability and impending doom. And in the end, the only way to win is to stay mobile and be conservative with your ammo supply. As the Hunter, stealth and patience are your ally. If you engage too quickly or easily, you will be discovered and overwhelmed by superior numbers of Marines or Xenomorphs. And as the Xenomorph, the ability to move hide, move quickly, and use the surrounding environment to your advantage is the key to success. This balance of abilities and weaknesses is key to making the gaming experience feel faithful to the franchise and as realistic as possible.

Bad Points:
But alas, there are some weaknesses. The first is the most obvious, and one I mentioned already. This game has some pretty cool graphics and game play features, such as the blurring effect which you can turn off and on. With it active, you experience blurring whenever you turn fast. This adds to the overall suspense and intensity of the game and makes it that much harder. But this, like everything else in this game, requires you have a fast machine with a good graphics card. Otherwise, expect things to be slow, choppy, and look pretty grainy!

Second, there’s the rather tired duty of the storyline where reasons have to keep being given for why you are on your own as the Marine. With the Hunter, it’s obvious why you’re fighting solo. That’s simply the way they fight, every Hunter in his own domain stalking and killing his prey and taking trophies. But for the Marines, the standard deployment tactic is by squad, coordinated and covering each others’ back. The fact that you’re constantly alone as a Marine just doesn’t make sense.

Sure, in previous versions, when the game just wasn’t sophisticated enough, this was understandable. A single person, first-person-shooter was simply the best they could do with what resources and money they had available. But now? With the kinds of AI’s and sophistication the latest games boast, there really isn’t much of a reason for making the majority of the Marine campaign single person FPS . That, and the constant reasons for why you’re on your own (i.e. the rest of the squad got killed, the last dropship got shot down, the door slammed shut and separated you from them) just gets annoying after awhile.

And lastly, there is the storyline which is a bit confusing. The part about scientists in a WY facility breeding Xenomorphs, that’s perfectly understandable. In fact, that’s the setup of every single AVP story: the evil corporate goons breed Xenos, they get loose, the Marines go in to clean up, they find Hunters there doing the same thing, and everything devolves into a three way fight.  But why are they breeding Xenos if the purpose of the colony was to uncover ancient Hunter ruins? Kind of seems like the traditional plot was laid on top of this other one in order ensure that all the plot elements are there.

Prometheus’ Plot Changes (Spoiler Alert!):
In the end, the purpose of this game was to bring all sides together so they could learn the location of the Xenomorph homeworld. That way, something that was never revealed in the original franchise was now being previewed, the gamer being left with the distinct impression that it would serve as the backdrop for the next game. Unfortunately, the movie Prometheus ruled this out by saying that the Xenos were a “Engineer” (aka. Space Jockey) bioweapon. If they are in fact weapons this race engineered, then they don’t have a homeworld.

Granted, this can be explained away by simply saying that the Engineers set up a “colony” for the Xenos, an entire world that was set aside for keeping them and breeding them in isolation. Since the retreat of the Engineers, this colony could have since evolved to become a festering hive of Xenos, with multiple Queens battling for supremacy and conflict giving rise to new and frightening sub-species. That could work, and it could be downright interesting.

And hey, if there is to be no sequel to this latest AVP game, someone will probably do some fan fic dealing with it. Who knows, it might even be me. I’m a fan, I can kinda write! Pay me to do it!

Back from seeing Prometheus!

As Stewie said when he learned that Child Services would be taking him away, “Finallllly!” Yes, that’s how I felt when we hopped in the car and were on our way to the theater. And though I am a week late in getting this review done, because last weekend we were diverted to see The Avengers, I think the wait was worth it!

And I should get some bonus points for doing it today. Because, as often proves the case with me, the cold has doubled back and reinfected me. You could say I was extra sympathetic to some of the characters in the this movie! But I don’t want to give anything away, I promised myself in advance that I would rate this movie without giving anything crucial away. So here goes…

First impressions:
The movie was pretty damn cool! The premise of ancient astronauts, which I knew they were employing here, is one I think pretty highly of. And the fact that they were going back to the Alien universe in such a way that they really wanted to capture the feel of the original was also pretty pleasing. And just about everyone I’ve heard speak on the subject has said that the visuals and effects were state of the art. They weren’t wrong.

That being said, I think they could have done the whole “Engineers” thing a bit better. In fact, what they had to say about their coming to Earth and what they looked like (which I shan’t get into for fear of spoilers) kind of called to mind how Stargate and AVP tackled the whole “aliens tampered with our history”. Still, Scott is nothing if not a master of crafting worlds and believable settings, so it was by no means in the same category. While I felt it could be better, it was still pretty damn good!

The Big Questions:
What’s more, this movie also filled in a great deal of details from the Alien franchises back story. Questions like what are the Xenomorphs, where did they come from, do their hosts and environments influence their appearance, why were they found aboard the Space Jockeys (“Engineers”) ship, and just who are the Jockeys anyway? All of these questions were addressed in this film and answered in one way or another. And of course, they left just enough mystery to keep the option open for further explorations in the Alien universe.

And I was pretty pleased with how they went about answering them, mainly because I’ve been studying them for some time now and heard quite a few theories. And sure, covering all this stuff did generate a certain “prequel duty” feel here and there, but Scott’s handling of all that seemed far superior to most others efforts. For one, I never really felt like they were wrapping things up in a neat little package, which is an annoying tendency to be found in most prequels. Take the Star Wars prequels, did those not feel like they were simply trying to connect the threads irrespective of plot? Yeah, well that wasn’t the case here.

Overall:
And that, I think, is what is best about this movie. Though it is technically a prequel, Scott and the makers seemed determined that it feel like a standalone story. I recall him saying as much in the course of an interview, and I truly felt like they succeeded. Granted, there were some flaws and some holes here and there, but these were hardly fatal and didn’t leave me thinking, “holy crap, that movie made no sense and was totally pointless and stupid!” Expectations and hopes were certainly high for this film, leading some to come away disappointed. But what can be said about them?

Sure, this movie wasn’t Alien, but there’s a reason for that! Scott already made that movie thirty-three years ago, and several directors have since taken the franchise in many different (and some would say wrong) directions. Going back to the before the beginning was the only option left really, reopening the franchise at a point before the original to answer all the tough, enduring questions that have fans have raised over the years. And that was no easy task and I could see beforehand how it would be riddled with potential pitfalls.

But in the end, I came away pretty pleased. Not only was this movie pretty good viewing, it was also a faithful return to the Alien universe… Frankly, I’d like to see what they come up with next!

Cool Ships (volume V)

Back again! More ships, more designs, more franchises too. Like I said last time, there’s just no limit when you get right down to it. And in the course of doing my homework on cool sci-fi concepts, I’ve found that there are hundreds of franchises out there that I’ve never even heard of before. Of those I have heard of, I always seem to miss a few obvious candidates. That’s the beauty of ongoing segments though. Here are the latest, with some suggestions thrown in too 😉

Colonial Raptor:
Another late entry from the Battlestar Galactica universe, the updated version. Designed for reconnaissance, transport, atmospheric and space flight, and capable of making short range FTL jumps, the Raptor is the workhorse of the Colonial fleet and one of its most versatile vessels. Ordinarily, the Raptor is operated by a crew of two, one pilot and one Electronic Countermeasures Officer. Given it’s size and shape, it cannot launch from a launch tube and must take off and land from a Battlestar’s forward launch bay.

Having served with the Colonial fleet for over 40 years, making its debut in the first Cylon War, the versatility and reliability of this craft have prevented it from being phased out by newer generations of Colonial ships. During the second Cylon War, Raptors were used regularly in order to dust off survivors from Caprica and other colonies. Relying on a fly-by-wire system, rather than the new defense network systems, it also proved invulnerable to the virus the Cylon’s used to cripple the fleet.

Cygnus:
Now here’s one that people probably won’t remember. In fact, I didn’t recall it either until I did some reading and realized I had seen the movie which featured it – The Black Hole – as a child and quite enjoyed it. Though a little Buck Rogers-y by modern standards, the concept and the movie and this ship still stand the test of time.

Released in 1979 by Walt Disney Pictures, The Black Hole was one of many movies that sought to take advantage of the sci-fi craze that Star Wars had unleashed. The plot centers on a derelict ship, known as the Cygnus, which is run by an android crew and a brilliant (albeit mad) scientist named Doctor Hans Reinhardt.

In addition to looking pretty cool, with its glowing transparent sections and old-school design, the Cygnus is apparently able to withstand the gravitational pull of black hole due to its ability to generate its own gravity well. In addition, its commander, Dr. Reinhardt, theorized that he would be able to fly it through a black hole and see once and for all what lay on the other side… It didn’t take, but still a cool idea!

Guild Heighliner:

Artist’s concept for a Guild Heighliner

Here’s one I couldn’t believe I had forgotten. In fact, I will accept any and all chastisements for my failure to include Dune craft in this series thus far. This can include physical beatings, just stay away from the nads… not quite done with those yet!

Anyhoo, when it comes to Dune ships, the Heighliner definitely takes the cake! Massive as all hell, this ship was the backbone of all commerce, diplomacy, travel and tourism in the Dune universe. Like all shipping, it was the exclusive property of the Spacing Guild and subject to their many controls, laws and whims.

Boasting Holtzman engines – a FTL drive system that was capable of “folding space” – the ship still required the services of a Guild Navigator. This person, a semi-prescient mutant due to years of living in a spice tank, would see a path through time and space and thus navigate the ship safely to its destination.

According to the original Dune, a single Heighliner was capable of lifting an entire planet’s worth of personnel, goods and supplies from one point in space to the next. As Duke Leto tells Paul in Part I of the story: “A Heighliner is truly big. Its hold will tuck all our frigates and transports into a little corner — we’ll be just a small part of the ship’s manifest.” Later in that same installment, House Harkonnen used a single Heighliner in order to lift an entire army to Arrakis for a surprise assault on the Atreides, and the cost was nothing short of punitive!

Given that the Heighliners are the sole means of commerce in a Empire as massive as that of the Dune universe, its little wonder why Heighliners are so freakishly big. Chartering one aint cheap, and if you do stowe aboard, you are expected to mind your business and wait until you arrive at your destination. Due to their high level of secrecy and sensitivity, no one is even allowed to venture beyond their own boarding craft when on a Heighlinger, and virtually no one outside of the Guild has ever seen a Guild navigator. Considered to be neutral territory by Imperial law, any and all acts of violence aboard Guild Heighliners carry stiff penalties.

Gunstar:
Ah, another childhood classic! Taken from the film The Last Starfighter, the Gunstar was the first line of defense of the Star League against the evil Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada. Sounds pretty cheesy, huh? Well, it was the eighties! And this was yet another Disney franchise that seemed to be riding in the Star Wars wake. Still, this movie was one the first to make extensive use of CGI (Tron being the only other) and had a none-too-bad storyline too boot!

Boasting multiple guns, missiles and a “Death Blossom” trick that is nothing short of devastating, the gun star is a rather unique and innovative design. Apparently, it was meant to be a class of ship that would never go out of style, merging functionality with lethality and being able to take on any class of enemy ship.

Every Gunstar is a two seater, with the starfighter (gunner) in front, and the navigator in the rear. While the navigator flies the ship, the gunner directs fire from a swivel chair, which gives them control over the ships moveable weapons batteries. Although it has no shielding to speak of, the hull is protected by armor plating which can withstand multiple direct hits. When cornered, it is also capable of unleashing the “Death Blossom” where it will begin to rotate at a furious speed and unleash gun and missile fire in all directions. This however, is considered a weapon of last resort, since it will drain the ship’s power supply completely.

Heart of Gold:
Now here’s an interesting, and highly improbably, entry! Coming to us straight out of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, the SS Heart of Gold is rather unique in that it merged scientific theory with Douglas Adam’s notoriously quirky sense of humor.

Being a prototype vessel, it was the first ship ever in the universe to boast the “Infinite Probability Drive”. This drive system is essentially a Faster-Than-Light engine which is actually based in quantum theory. Essentially, the theory states that a subatomic particle is most likely to be in a particular place at a particular time, but that there is also a small probability of it being found very far from its point of origin. Thus, a body could travel from place to place without passing through the intervening space as long as it had sufficient control of probability.

Pretty cool huh? In the original radio series, the shape of the vessel was not specified. In the novelization of the series, it was described as a “sleek white running shoe”. For the sake of the movie, artists went with a tea-cup design, and added some brake lights for good measure. Originally built as part of a secret government project on the planet of Damogran, the ship was stolen by President Zaphod Beeblebrox during its launching ceremony and became the means through which the main characters began exploring the universe.

Minbari Cruiser:
Back once more to the B5 universe for another fine example of kick-ass shippery! Known officially as the Sharlin-class Warcruiser, this Minbari vessel is the mainstay of the Minbari fleet in the original series. Big, bold, stealthy, and packing a sh*tload of firepower, this vessel is veritable nightmare for all but the most powerful of races. Even Shadow vessels mind their business when some of these are in the field.

Making its appearance in season one of the show (episode 17: “Legacies”) and went on to become a regular feature. When Sheridan assumed command of the station in season two, the renegade cruiser Trigati was destroyed in the course of a standoff. After B5 broke away from Earth in season 3, a force of Sharlin cruisers arrived just in time to prevent the station from being captured by forces loyal to Clarke. Many went on to serve alongside Sherian and Delenn in the Shadow War and even went on to help liberate Earth from Clarke’s forces.

According to Delenn, Minbari ships do not rely on conventional engines like other ships. Instead, a system of gravitational and electromagnetic fields for propulsion, which have the added benefit of supplying artificial gravity. This frees up their ships from the needs of rotating sections and makes for a more effective combat platform. Sharlin cruisers also boast a significant amount of weaponry, which consists mainly of heavy beam cannons, but also includes missile launchers, neutron guns, and electro-pulse cannons.

During the Earth-Mimbari War, Earth Forces were completely outmatched by this class of Cruiser. In addition to being highly resistant to Earth force weapons, the Sharlin cruiser also boasted a stealth field which prevented Earth ships from being able to lock onto it. In the course of the war, only one human Captain ever survived combat with one, Captain John Sheridan. Relying on a phony distress signal and several well placed tactical nukes, Sheridan was able to lure the Black Star, the Minbari flagship, into a trap and destroy it. Though the Minbari considered it a cheap victory, Sheridan’s fame and renown quickly spread throughout the fleet.

During the battle of Sector 83, the Sharlin-class Cruiser proved an effective weapon against the Shadows. Although somewhat slow and providing a large target for Shadows, their powerful beam weapons were capable of destroying a Shadow ship unassisted. When protected by smaller, faster craft like the White Star, it proves to be a very effective combat platform.

Nebula-B Escort Frigate:
More Star Wars! God, I think I’m OD’ing on this franchise. But the sign says “Cool Ships” and this one is no exception. Known as the Nebula-class frigate, this ship is probably best remembered as the “Medical Frigate” which appeared in Empire and Jedi. 

Measuring some 300 meters long and designed to defend Imperial convoys from Rebel attacks, this ship was more famously used by the Rebellion as a hospital ship. During heavy fighting, Nebula-B’s would be on hand to pick up pilots that had ejected and provide them with life-saving assistance, ensuring that Rebel pilots could live to fight another day.

The most famous appearance of a Medical Frigate was during the Battle of Endor, when several medical frigates were on hand to service Rebel pilots who had been shot down by superior Imperial forces. It was also on board the Medical Frigate Redemption that Luke Skywalker received his prosthetic hand after losing it in a lightsaber duel to Vader.

In addition to providing escort and as a hospital ship, the Nebula-B was proved useful as a deep space scout and reconnaissance ship, due to its sophisticated sensors. During raiding missions or less intense combat operations, many also served as command ships given their speed and defensive capabilities. One weakness of the Nebula-B however was its thin fusilage. Though this made the ship an inexpensive vessel by most standards, it also made it a poor choice for heavy combat. Hence why it was relegated to support, scouting and medical roles.

The Nostromo:
You know, I really thought I covered this one already. I already mentioned how the Alliance Cruisers from Firefly appeared to be inspired by this baby. And it just makes sense that if you’re going to cover ships from the sequel, (the USS Sulaco and the Cheyenne Dropship) that you cover the original first. But alas, the Nostromo was somehow passed over by me, another act of wanton insensitivity! Beating shall continue until my attitude improves!

Okay, now that we got my punishment out of the way, allow me to pay this ship it’s due homage. The main set for the movie Alien, the USCSS Nostromo was a deep space commercial vessel which belonged to the Weyland-Yutani corp (much like everything else in this universe!).

Overall, the Nostromo was a curious design which made perfect sense from a space-faring point of view. Doing away with such things as streamlining and aerodynamic sleekness, the ship was well suited to deep-space travel and hailing. In addition, it was also taller than it was long, another common aspect to spaceships which are confined to the whole sea ship/airplane paradigm.

It’s massive refinery, which it towed behind, would process its manifest of mined ore while it made its way back to Earth from wherever it had been deployed. Thus, in addition to providing transport and amenities for a crew of miners and spacers, it was also a mobile refining platform that could deliver processed materials to factories rather than just unrefined ore.

While on return from the distant planet of Thedus, the Nostromo was rerouted to LV-426 where it picked up the alien organism known as a xenomorph. After all but one of the crew were killed the by creature, Ellen Ripley, the ship’s Warrant Officer, set the ship’s to self-destruct and escaped aboard the ship’s life craft with the crew cat, Jones. According to Weyland-Yutani execs, who were some pissed when she returned without her ship, the destruction of this vessel cost them 24 million in adjusted dollars. Damn penny-pinchers!

The Sathanas:
What do you call the most fearsome, intimidating and powerful ship in the universe, without being too obvious, that is? The Sathanas, that’s what! Being the Latin name for Satan, this title is very apt when applied to a massive juggernaut built by a race known as the the Shivans (i.e. Shiva, Hindu god of destruction).

This last entry, much like The Colossus and Deimos from my last list, comes to us from the game Freespace 2. Making its appearance midway through the game, this terrifying vessel was the most powerful space-faring ship ever encountered by the human race or its allies.

Boasting four massive beam cannons which are situated at the end of its claw like appendages, this ship best exemplifies the offensive fighting spirit. Jumping into a field of battle, it is capable of dealing devastating blows on a target head on, keeping its flanks and rear hidden from the enemy.

Above all, it is clear that the Shivan built the Sathanas to act as a terror weapon in addition to a capital ship. One look at its design confirms this, given its clawing appendages and thorny skin. Defeating this ship outright is quite difficult given its reinforced plating and terrible array of weapons. Disabling this ship, through EMP missiles and guns, is not much easier given the incredibly density of its hull and many redundant systems. In the end, the only way to beat it seems to be for lighter craft to take out its “claws” while heavier vessels strike at it from a distance. However, this still proves to be a suicidal mission given the Sathanas’ many missile and defensive batteries.

Ultimately, taking down this ship in the game is much like the real-life campaign to sink the Bismark. This dreadnought, which was the pride and joy of the German navy in WWII, also boasted massive weapons, a heavily armored hull and superior systems. In the end, the Royal Navy brought it down through a combination of luck, persistence, and careful engagements, taking their time to disable it and then closing in to pound it relentlessly! Hmmm. I guess good history makes for good gaming 🙂

Final Thoughts:/strong>
The suggestion box, as always, is still open. Thanks to Goran Zidar for suggesting the Gunstar, I knew I’d have to include it sooner or later and I’m glad someone asked. Anything else? I got another installment on the way, and probably a few more after that. No? Sigh, alright, bring on the beatings! No nads!

Aliens, revisited

After doing my due diligence to learn what I could about the Xenomorph for my post on Ancient Aliens, I found some interesting additional info that kept me reading. For one, I came to learn that there were a lot of details about the Alien universe that were revealed by Ridley Scott and James Cameron in the course of interviews, but never made it into the movies themselves. At the same time, there was plenty of info that made it into comics, novelization and other sources in the expanded franchise which fans of the movies would want to know about. There were a lot of mysteries in the Alien universe that were left deliberately vague, basic questions that never got answered.

For example:

  1. What was that derelict ship from the first movie and where did it come from?
  2. Why were there eggs aboard the ship in the first place?
  3. And of course, where do the Xenomorph’s come from?

Well, here are some of the answers that I found out:

1. Space Jockeys:
This is the name of the race that built the derelict craft that crashed on LV-426 and was investigated by the crew of the Nostromo. Based on the design of the skeleton that was featured in the movie, and additional material from the alien comics, this race was apparently humanoid, very large, and had elephant-like trunks on their faces. According to all sources on the subject, the Space Jockeys are millions of years old and go by many different names.

In fact, “Space Jockeys” was the name the set designers came up with, whereas H.R Giger (the designer of the Alien) called it “The Pilot”. This second name was used in the video game AVG 2, where the aliens are known as Pilots and examples of their technology as “Pilot Technology”. Yet another name comes from the novelization entitled Aliens: Original Sin by Michael Friedman, where they are known as the Mala’kak. Where they come from remains a mystery, but the fact that their ship was carrying Xenomorph eggs would seem suggests that there was some kind of relationship. Which brings us to question two…

2. The Eggs:
One theory has it that the Space Jockeys were the original victims of the Xenomorphs. Another has it that they were in fact their creators. This second theory is far more detailed and shows up in various sources. Apparently, the Space Jockeys (or Mala’kak) bred the Xenomorphs for use a civil war that was raging millions of years ago. This would certainly explain why the Xenomorphs are so hostile, so adaptive, and proliferate so quickly. Ultimately, the Xenomorphs turned on their creators and caused their extinction, and live on as weapons leftover from a forgotten war.

I got to admit, I didn’t like this theory too much. Somehow, it made the Aliens less scary to know that they were cooked up in a lab as opposed to say, borne out of conditions we can hardly imagine on a planet we have yet to discover. However, I also have to admit that it fit with something I notice whenever I watch the original Alien movie. Compare the Space Jockey ship to the architecture of a Xenomorph hive. Do they not look similar? All those curved surfaces and H.P. Lovecraftian sensibilities? Would it be so crazy to conclude that the Xenomorphs inherited their sense of aesthetics from their creators?

However, there remains the question of why a derelict ship was discovered on LV-426 carrying eggs. Could it be that this was a simple transport that was hauling eggs for the sake of the war effort? If so, then the most likely scenario would be that the pilot became infected accidentally and crashed into the planet, programming the ship to send out a distress signal before his untimely demise. However, we won’t know that for sure until the new movie comes out (see below!)

3. Xenomorph Prime:
According to various sources, the Xenomorph homeworld is a hostile planet named Proteus.  Much like LV-426, it boasts a cold and harsh climate that is rife with volcanoes and turbulent wind storms. According to one theory, the planet is not the actual source of the Xenomorph species, but was used as a storage house by the Space Jockeys to contain and breed them.

The exact source of this info is unclear, but in the 2010 AvP video game, things end with Weyland Yutani discovering the location of their homeworld. This would seem to indicate that it will be revealed and/or detailed in the sequel. Also, the info on Proteus (as it stands) is clearly linked to the theory that the Space Jockeys were responsible for the creation of the Xenomorphs, so I can only assume that it came up in one of the AvP comics or novels.

Prometheus:
In the course of learning all this, I also came to learn that Ridley Scott has been dropping some serious hints of late. Apparently, the concept of the Space Jockeys, the Xenomorph homeworld, and the link between the two species will be explored at some length in the upcoming movie, Prometheus. For those who don’t know, this upcoming movie is a prequel to the Alien franchise where the crew of an Earth starship discover the derelict years before the Nostromo. Originally, I was planning on avoiding it. But successive previews and all the promised explanations are starting to get to me. Coming to theaters this summer, people!