Posted in Books, Television

Sci-Fi Summer

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This summer is pig heaven if you’re a science fiction fan. “Under the Dome” has returned for Round Two of life with Big Jim. “The Leftovers” is ensconced in HBO’s Sunday night lineup. But Wednesday night saw the premiere of a show that may turn out to be the best of the lot, CBS’ “Extant,” with Halle Berry as the “how can she be pregnant?” astronaut.

Watching the pilot episode reminded me of the best of classic sci-fi, the stuff I gobbled up in seventh grade when I first started reading Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Kate Wilhelm and a host of other authors. Despite the futuristic production design (I loved the presentation to the Yasumoto board), the show hit every classic note on the genre scale. You’ve got outer space, robots passing for human (thus the “humanics” designation), possible alien life forms and suspended animation, spiced up with nefarious corporations, conspiracy and just plain old paranoia.

How can you go wrong?

I loved Goran Visnjic (hello Dr. Kovac!) as Halle’s robotics maven husband who pooh-poohs the possibility of any form of robot uprising. That’s one big fat Acme anvil right there. I suspect it won’t be long before he’s disabused of that notion if only by his “son,” the humanic Ethan who, to put it mildly, has something of an aggression problem. The creep factor is enormous: Goran’s workshop with spare humanic parts, Ethan’s abrupt switch from the dead bird to complimenting his mother’s hairstyle, only to be topped by the sudden appearance of a stranger on the space station, tracing “Help Me” on a foggy window. Shudder.

The show runners certainly packed a great deal into one hour, leaving us with a laundry list of questions:

Why was Halle alone on a space station the size of a small city? And for 13 months?

Honey, if your dead first husband shows up and the only words out of his mouth are a monotone repeat of yours, you didn’t get that maybe there’s a problem here?

Why did she erase the tape? Out of fear of a bad performance review? Because good astronauts can’t be caught hallucinating?

I can’t wait until the next episode.

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The Guilty Remnant's Words to Live By
The Guilty Remnant’s Words to Live By

I read Tom Perrotta’s novel, “The Leftovers,” prior to the start of the HBO series, and now I almost wish I hadn’t. While it’s no surprise that the book and TV series are very different in tone, what’s bothersome is that the show suffers for it.

The novel, published in 2011, defies categorization. It’s a stark examination of people coping with unexpected, catastrophic loss (In positing the inexplicable disappearance of 2% of the world’s population, Perrotta obviously drew on 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami). The author provides no explanation for this, though many characters think it’s the Rapture. But contrary to initial expectations, Perrotta’s people for the most part respond in understandable if not always reasonable ways. The novel’s universe doesn’t feel upended. True, there’s a cult-like movement called the Guilty Remnant (see above), which in its discipline bears more than a passing resemblance to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, and various nuts come out of the woodwork, but life does go on.

However, HBO’s version, co-created by Tom Perrotta, is far darker and dystopian. In no particular order, I don’t remember anyone shooting dogs in the book, though it’s done here, the Kevin Garvey character isn’t the chief of police but the somewhat wealthy mayor of the town, and his son is no killer. For that matter, the Wayne Gilchrist character is a nondescript middle aged man; he and his followers more closely resemble Warren Jeffs and his faction than the crew manning the armed encampment you see in the show. Perhaps the TV version’s biggest failing is the casting of Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey. He’s a fine actor to be sure, but he’s a walking nerve end, a far cry from the more even-tempered Kevin Garvey we meet on the page.

But dystopia sells, which no doubt is the reason why “The Leftovers” is no longer a meditation on dealing with loss but a sci-fi thriller. I don’t mean this pejoratively; I just think it would have been more interesting to retain the book’s slant for TV, though it would have been difficult to sustain for 13 episodes. But the show is doing an excellent job with the Guilty Remnant, and Jill Garvey’s struggles remain true to Perrotta’s original vision. I intend to keep watching.

Far more fun is the return of “Under the Dome,” as the residents of Chester’s Mill continue their puzzlement over the whys and wherefores. Yes, Junior in essence saved Barbie’s life, and that was indeed Stephen King himself in the diner, asking Angie for a coffee refill. Due to my commuting schedule I’m a week behind, so I can’t wait to see how the McAlisters, Norrie and Carolyn fare under Big Jim’s roof. Just one big happy family? I think not.

 

Posted in Books, Movie Reviews, Television

Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)

Given the stresses of our times, are we surprised that “end of the world” scenarios exercise such a strong pull on the imagination? No matter the method—mass death by unleashed viruses, unstoppable zombies or murderous invaders from space—the story always forces us to think “What would I do?” Because my movie-going started with Saturday matinees during the 1950’s—an era dominated by The Bomb—I cultivated an early appreciation of the threatened mass wipe-out. I’m not talking about morality tales like “On the Beach” or “The World, the Flesh and the Devil,” as absorbing as they may be. I’m talking “It’s our last chance to save the Earth!” My not-so-guilty pleasure.

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“Deep Impact”: Heroes All

Premium cable is currently showing a better than average example of the genre, 1998’s “Deep Impact,” featuring a massive comet on a collision course with Earth. Now, I should warn you: this is a slightly cheesy movie. High quality cheese to be sure, what with Morgan Freeman, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Duvall and Maximilian Schell gracing the cast. Unfortunately, though, there’s also an incredibly wooden Téa Leoni as the MSNBC reporter who uncovers the true threat the comet poses to the world. Her facial expressions change not one whit during the entire course of the film, though her drunken scene with her father and his new young bride after learning that humanity is pretty much doomed is a nice bit of black humor. Fortunately the supporting cast makes up the difference.

Reviewing all the plots in “Deep Impact” is basically a waste of time, since you’ve seen nearly all of them in other sci-fi movies anyway. Let’s just say the highlights are Morgan Freeman as one terrific U.S. President, Charles Martin Smith in a quintessential Charles Martin Smith role as the astronomer who confirms the existence of the deadly comet, Vanessa Redgrave just for being Vanessa Redgrave, and best of all, the crew of the spaceship Messiah launched to plant nukes within the comet to blow it off course. There’s a great subplot involving Robert Duvall as the veteran astronaut, at least 25 years older than his crewmates, who’s treated as virtual surplusage by the team. That is, until disaster strikes and his savvy makes all the difference to their mission. Prepare to blubber as you watch the crew’s good-byes to their loved ones, and hear the brief, gallant exchange between Co-Pilot Mary McCormack and Commander Duvall: “May I say it was a pleasure serving with you, Captain?” “The pleasure was all mine, Andy, the pleasure was all mine.” Sob.

There’s another collision course in Ben H. Winters’ “The Last Policeman,” the first volume of a projected trilogy. Though nominally a mystery, the book’s backdrop is the impending strike of a massive asteroid which may wipe out the planet. Our hero, a cop in southern New Hampshire, is coping with the disappearances of people headed off to fulfill their Bucket List fantasies and the suicides of those who see no point in waiting for the end.  Winters is an excellent writer, and while the central mystery of the novel is somewhat of a no-brainer, the characterizations and dialogue are spot-on. Best of all, that looming asteroid and the human reaction to its doomsday effect keep you turning the pages. The second volume of the trilogy, “Countdown City,” has just been published, and the disaster clock is still ticking.

UnderTheDomeI’m also enjoying “Under the Dome,” the CBS mini-series based on the Stephen King novel. While the author doesn’t threaten total doomsday, the citizens of Chester’s Mill, Maine, cut off from the world, are now coping with shortages that may see their end. The town is populated by folk totally familiar to anyone who’s read more than one King novel—the psycho kid, the slut, the upstanding cop, the crooked politician, the studly guy with a mysterious past (Throw in a goodly dose of vintage rock ‘n’ roll and you’re all set).

But this one’s got some interesting wrinkles. The upstanding police chief is dead, and the law in town is a young Hispanic female officer who unfortunately has just deputized the village psycho. The hippest kid under the dome is teen-aged Norrie, who was caught in town along with her two moms when disaster struck. She and young Joe McAllister are prone to some type of contagious seizure caused by the dome. When afflicted, these two chant something about pink stars falling. In a recent experiment they deliberately induced this state while a smart phone recorded their seizures. And the playback showed one of the creepiest things I’ve seen in a very long time—Joe sitting up, while still in an altered state, to look squarely into the camera and gesture “shhhh.” Hoo-boy. Good times ahead.

NOTE: The title of this post comes from that Guy Lombardo evergreen, which is still played by bands everywhere on New Year’s Eve. Take heed.