Which is worse? Living in a radioactive airship or inside a giant bio-engineered lizard?

I recently read two very different scifi books, with a similar theme – people living part or all of their lives on the move, inside an unusual, cramped and unpleasant form of transportation. Both stories are set about 250 years in the future on a post-apocalyptic Earth operating under militarized society.

First, let me talk about James Barclay’s Heart of Granite. The book begins with this quote from fictional scientist Dr. David Wong – “History will record that the discovery of alien technology and DNA on asteroid X34-102-401 brought us to a predictable catastrophe. Governments perverted our greatest gift to synthesise vehicles of destruction. Global conflict was inevitable.”

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The story takes place during the mid-23rd century in the midst of a world war involving three major global powers – United Europe (UE), Middle East & Africa (the Mid-Afs or Mafs) and Latin America (the Sambas). All three parties use alien DNA technology for their weapons.

Our hero, Max Halloran is a maverick pilot (think Tom Cruise in Top Gun), fighting on the side of United Europe. Operating under the call sign ‘Hal-X’ he flies with the Inferno squadron. So far, so normal. Except that he flies an artificially grown dragon (called a Drake), synthesized from alien DNA and terrestrial lizard DNA. The drakes have a pouch which the pilot climbs into. It then fills with fluid to protect the pilot from g-forces and also neurally connects him/ her to the drake’s brain so that it can be controlled by thought. The drakes, pilots and a few thousand other military combatants are transported inside the body cavity of a kilometer long giant lizard (called a Behemoth), which lumbers along the devastated battlefield on 30-odd pairs of legs. The Behemoth inside which Max and his crew are based is the eponymous Heart of Granite (or HoG for short). The military also uses other genetically modified lizards as troop carriers (Komodos), ground assault vehicles with missile launchers (Geckos), support carriers (Iguanas) and high speed patrol vehicles (Basilisks), some of which are also transported aboard the giant Behemoths.

Heart of Granite plays out like a standard pulp fiction military thriller. There are spectacular air battles, heartless superior officers, rivalry between hotheaded pilots, plus the usual mix of sex, drugs and alcohol.

But what made the book special for me was the description of life aboard the HoG, which operates like a typical military base. The author goes into tremendous detail about the internal structures of the Behemoth. There’s the main bridge inside the head cavity with its large screen monitors and sophisticated communication equipment; the flight deck from which the drakes are launched – a giant ramp opens out under the Behemoth’s tail from which they take off; the hidden passageways and rooms occupied by black marketeers and drug peddlers; the giant brain of the Behemoth which can be accessed in the case of an emergency to reset the electrical, mechanical and biological systems. Some parts of the Behemoth are particularly smelly or occasionally leak body fluid through cracks in the flesh, which then pool on the floor in a squelchy mess. It’s anything but glamorous, but the men and women aboard the HoG take it all in their stride as they fight for their nation and for glory. There’s also a somewhat convoluted plotline involving a government and military conspiracy, which Max gets sucked into. Eventually, he has to save himself, his friends and the HoG, while evading the higher-ups in the military who are trying to silence him.


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The second book I read was Nicholas Sansbury Smith’s Hell Divers. About 250 years after World War III turned the surface of the earth into a radioactive wasteland, all that remains of humanity is a population of less than a thousand people, who live aboard two helium airships – the Hive and the Ares.  Once upon a time, there were dozens of such airships, but now only these two survive. The rest fell to the poisoned earth one by one, as their ageing nuclear systems failed or the ships were struck by giant bolts of lightning from the perpetual mega-storms which circle the planet. Generation after generation of airship captains circle the globe, looking in vain for a single spot on the planet which is not radioactive, where they can touch down and start a normal life. Meanwhile, over more than two centuries, they have learned how to survive inside the airship, with plants grown inside farms, systems constantly patched up and repaired, living in cramped quarters with stinking toilets, everything recycled and citizens suffering from cancer due to the leaking radiation from the on-board nuclear reactors.

The protagonist of this book is Xavier Rodriguez, or X for short. X is a Hell Diver, an elite member of the military on board the Hive. They specialize in doing parachute drops into ruined cities, looking for precious spare parts or other pieces of technology which are required to keep the ships functioning and airborne. The author starts off by telling us that the average life expectancy of a Hell Diver is 15 jumps, but X is about to do his 96th. Beating the statistical odds comes with a price – most of X’s Hell Diver friends have perished over the years, his own wife has recently died and X keeps himself going by drowning himself in alcohol.

In this story, the airship Ares attempts a desperate retrieval mission for a large cache of critical nuclear reactor parts. The ship chooses to go to Hades (Chicago of old earth) which was the HQ of the company that built these airships and is rumoured to have a warehouse filled with pristine spare parts. Unfortunately, Hades is racked by the most violent thunderstorms on the planet and no airship’s Hell Diver team has ever returned from a dive there. Not surprisingly, the Ares is badly damaged and sends out an SOS; Captain Ash of the Hive decides to respond, her conscience winning out against the advice of her subordinates. She turns to her most experienced Hell Diver and it’s up to X and his crew to save the day. Most of them survive the jump against all odds, but once on the surface, they discover that Hades is overrun by a host of mutated creatures which are able to survive in the radiation. It becomes a desperate race against time to find the cache of parts, escape the marauding creatures and get back to the ship before it too falls victim to the brutal weather above the ruined city.

There are a couple of subplots which lift the story above standard military scifi fare. One involves the orphaned and traumatized son of X’s deceased colleague who now comes under his care. Just as the boy warms up to X’s attempts to build a rapport, he has to deal with the possibility that X will not return from his dive into Hades. The other subplot involves a group of citizens who are fed up with the squalid conditions on the lower decks of the Hive and decide to start a rebellion at the same time that the ship enters the perilous skies above Hades.

I’m not a particularly fast reader, but I managed to finish each of these books in less than four hours, which is an indication of how quickly-paced both stories are and how easy it is to digest the conversational language of both authors, in spite of lots of technical details thrown in.

Sorcerers of Majipoor: world building on the scale of Lord of the Rings

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Robert Silverberg’s award winning 1980 novel Lord Valentine’s Castle introduced scifi fans to the world of Majipoor, a giant planet settled by humans and other alien races for thousands of years. Since then, the prolific Mr. Silverberg (now 81 years old) has published 6 more novels and countless short stories and novelettes revisiting Majipoor at different points of time across its history, the latest being the short story collection Tales of Majipoor, published in 2013.

The novels deal mainly with the ruling triumvirate of the planet – the Coronal (equivalent to a king), the Pontifex (the head of the bureaucracy, a post into which the ruling Coronal moves upon the death of the previous Pontifex) and the Lady of Sleep (the keeper of morals, a post occupied by the mother/ aunt of the reigning Coronal). Majipoor is a ‘backwater planet’ which has limited contact with Earth. The original human settlers were technologically advanced and were able to tame the planet and its aboriginal inhabitants – the Piurivar – in the early part of the planet’s history. In those early centuries of colonization, the human settlers built great engineering marvels. One of these is the Coronal’s castle, built on top of Castle Mount, the tallest mountain on the planet with springtime weather maintained right to the top using force fields and atmosphere generators. There is also the sprawling underground city called Labyrinth which houses the Pontifex and the entire bureaucracy. Other alien races have since then migrated to Majipoor and become an integral part of the human-dominated society. Interestingly, due to the scarcity of metals on the planet, whatever advanced technology exists on Majipoor (genetically modified draft animals, floater cars and energy guns) is the stuff that’s survived or maintained from the original colonist tech. Since then, Majipoor has settled into an agricultural economy supporting a pastoral society.

This means that the Majipoor stories have more in common with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings fantasy books than the scifi stories of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. In the Majipoor novels, Robert Silverberg has unleashed his world building skills and the sheer amount of detail that pops up in the novels is astonishing. Tolkien likewise had worked for many years to create an extensive historical, geographical and linguistic backdrop to the world of Middle Earth before he embarked upon the task of writing the actual stories of hobbits, elves and the One Ring.

I had read Silverberg’s first Majipoor trilogy – Lord Valentine’s Castle, Majipoor Chronicles and Valentine Pontifex – in the late 90s. The trilogy centred around the character of Valentine and his journey from becoming the Coronal till his succession to the position of Pontifex.

Now, more than 15 years later, I am thoroughly enjoying revisiting this world with the first book of another Majipoor trilogy featuring the books Sorcerers of Majipoor, Lord Prestimion and King of Dreams. These are set thousands of years before the Valentine trilogy and tell the story of Prestimion and his journey to becoming Coronal of Majipoor.

And so, I am in awe all over again of Silverberg’s amazing world building skills and am re-experiencing the sheer joy of reading about this gigantic planet, its flora, fauna and peoples. I have a mental picture of Silverberg sitting down with large sheets of paper and writing out the names of each of the 50 cities (Amblemorn, Dundilmir, Castlethorn, Gimkandale, Vugel, Muldemar…) that dot the slopes of Castle Mount or the names of rivers, lakes, flowers, trees (simbajinder, dyumbataro, mengak, havilbove, jujuga, halatinga), birds, animals and minerals which are mentioned as part of the narrative.

For example, in the Sorcerers of Majipoor there is a page and a half devoted to the description of the dyumbataro tree – how it’s branches uniquely grow from a mass of aerial roots and how the humble fisherfolk living around Lake Roghoiz are able to shape these to build a platform for their houses; how the houses are built from translucent sheets of a glossy mineral cut from the sides of nearby cliffs and the evening sunlight strikes this material to create a sight of extraordinary beauty along the shores of the lake. This scene is a small part of a chapter which covers a journey by the main characters down the River Glayge aboard a riverboat named Termagent, passing the village of Makroposopos, famous for the skill of its weavers, arriving at the impressive Stangard Falls, then onwards past the river towns of Jerrik, Ganbole, Sattinor and Vrove with the cities of Nimivan, Threiz, Hydasp, Davanampiya, Mitripond, Storp visible along the way…

You get the picture!

Many online reader reviews have criticized Sorcerers of Majipoor for its slow pacing and lack of plot progression. That’s something one has to be prepared for when reading the Majipoor books. The whole point of the book is the enjoyment of the world rather than the thrill of a page turner.

Even so, there is a plot in this book, not just descriptions of cities and trees! It is a story of political intrigue played out against the backdrop of old-fashioned jousting games, royal balls, lavish feasts, the above-mentioned river trip and much more. The central character here is Prince Prestimion, who is heir presumptive to the Coronal’s throne but has the crown snatched away from him on the eve of the coronation through the machinations of others. He now has to sort out who are friends, foes and fence-sitters as he attempts to overthrow the usurper. His three closest friends – the noblemen Duke Svor, Septach Melayn and Gialaurys – remind me of the Three Musketeers, each with their own personalities, which get fleshed out over the course of the novel.

The Majipoor novels are not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you enjoy losing yourself in imaginary worlds, then start off with Lord Valentine’s Castle and work your way through the two trilogies. You may want to keep a notebook and pen handy though, to keep track of all the characters and places!

David Ayer aims high but falls short with Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad has disappointed a number of critics as being less than the sum of its parts. After watching it, I tend to agree, particularly since director David Ayer had done two very entertaining ensemble movies prior to this – the well-received World War 2 film Fury and the critically massacred drug-enforcement-team-gone-bad action flick Sabotage – both of which I loved and wholeheartedly recommend. In fact, Sabotage had the kind of vibe that Suicide Squad should have had; it’s an R-rated film with gratuitous violence and unlikable characters – exactly what was missing from Suicide Squad. Not surprising…while Sabotage was an independent production, Suicide Squad is from a large corporation, namely Warner Bros. and I guess some studio execs didn’t have the courage to do with the movie what Fox did with Deadpool earlier this year., i.e. give it an R rating. Even though Deadpool is part of Fox’s X-Men universe, the studio had no trouble making an edgy, R-rated film for grown ups, being quite clear that the film was meant for a very different audience quadrant compared to the kid-friendly X-Men films.

Suicide Squad on the other hand, takes two steps forward and then retreats a step. Instead of portraying a team of hardened death-row criminals, who are in fact the biggest foes of the Justice League superheroes, we end up with a team of social misfits who all appear to have hidden hearts of gold.

Take Will Smith’s character for instance. He plays Floyd Lawton, aka Deadshot, the world’s deadliest marksman who never misses; an assassin for hire. The writers have picked one particular storyline from the comic books in which Deadshot has an estranged daughter who he cares for. In the movie, this daughter and his need to do right by her becomes a big part of his character. What could have been a really kick-ass anti-hero/ supervillain instead became Will Smith playing some misunderstood guy with a heart of gold. I can well imagine Will Smith or his reps insisting that his character be given these redeeming qualities in order to protect his future box office potential and public persona.

Another key character, the psychotic criminal Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) starts off very convincingly as the former prison shrink who is the lover and accomplice of the Joker. In fact, Robbie has done an outstanding job with the character, but towards the end there is once again an attempt to give her a softer side and some emotional bond with the rest of the Squad, which really jars with her character traits upto that point.

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Harley Quinn and Deadshot are inmates at the Belle Reve Penitentiary for supervillains. They along with a few others (Killer Croc, El Diablo, Captain Boomerang) are offered a partial amnesty by shadowy government operative Amanda Waller in return for joining a black ops team to combat possible metahuman attacks (her logic being that the next Superman need not be a good guy). In fact, as is so often the case with the US government, it is one of their own ‘creations’, the ancient witch named Enchantress, who goes rogue and ends up creating havoc across several city blocks. The squad is assembled under the leadership of an Army special forces officer named Rick Flagg and off they go. After many predictable action scenes, the squad members have a chance to escape but instead choose to ‘do the right thing’ and save the city.

In return for a job well done, they are put back into Belle Reve, with the only hope of getting out of solitary confinement being their willingness to volunteer for a future black ops mission.

The Joker, played by Jared Leto, had promised to make a big impact in the movie. Although he does have reasonable screen time and is chilling in an early scene with a gangster in a night club, the character soon becomes part of the background noise once the action begins.

I also had a problem with the soundtrack, which was filled wall to wall with many recognizable hits from the past. I know this approach was pulled off with great aplomb by James Gunn in Guardians of the Galaxy, but in general I don’t have much respect for this sort of ‘lazy composing’. I found it somewhat condescending, as if the dumb audience needs the song to understand the underlying theme/ tone/ message of a particular scene.

In spite of all the criticism, I actually found the movie reasonably entertaining. It was, as we Indians say, a typical ‘masala movie’, or in western parlance, a ‘popcorn flick’. Just laugh along at the slightly predictable jokes, sit through the fight scenes that blur into each other and every now and then, you are rewarded with a genuinely well choreographed sequence or smart punch line. In particular, I enjoyed the cameos from a couple of Justice League members.

Overall, a case of too many characters and too much ambition being squeezed into the confines of a two hour film.

Star Trek Beyond – Justin Lin keeps the series flying high

In 2006, Taiwanese-born director Justin Lin was tapped to direct the 3rd installment in the Fast and Furious series. The big stars Paul Walker (from the first two films) and Vin Diesel (from the first film) weren’t returning and the series could well have come to a quiet conclusion with this film. However, Lin did enough to make Universal Pictures some money and give the execs the belief that there was still life left in the franchise. He was called back for the fourth film, this time with the original cast returning. It was a significant commercial success and got him the gig for the next two films as well, each one going from strength to strength, with the addition of rising and future stars like Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot.

Now Paramount must be hoping that Lin can bring the same magic touch to the Star Trek series. JJ Abrams rebooted the series to commercial and critical success in 2009 and hopes were high for his follow up in 2013. But it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, probably because of its messy plot which also fiddled around with a hallowed storyline from the original film series; Abrams and his beloved writers Kurtzman, Orci and Lindelof have been known to aim too high and fall short in the past (yes, I’m talking about Lost). With Abrams now having to produce both Star Wars (for Disney) and Star Trek films, Paramount have turned to Justin Lin to helm the 3rd entry in the rebooted Star Trek series.

Star Trek Beyond plays like a two hour TV episode. So audiences don’t have to be familiar with the plots of the previous films, only with the overall premise and with the key characters.

The film opens 3 years into the crew’s 5 year mission to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations”. Everyone has settled into a routine and Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine) is going through a crisis of faith as one day blurs into the other. In fact, he’s applied to Starfleet for a desk job. Other members of the crew are immersed in their own lives. Sulu (John Cho) misses his young daughter, Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are taking time off from their relationship, McCoy (Karl Urban) is in a philosophical mood and Scotty (Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script) is obsessed with affairs of the Enterprise as usual.

The crew stops for shore leave at the massive new space station named Starbase Yorktown, which is a marvel of film production design – beautifully rendered in incredible eye-popping detail. There are two significant scenes at the Yorktown and I am sure that in due course I will watch this movie again just to pick up all the engineering details. I bet there will be a few scifi forums discussing the design as well. It’s so massive that as it comes into view, Dr. McCoy says “why didn’t they just rent space on a planet?”.

While at Yorktown, a rescue mission comes up requiring a flight through a dangerous route. The Enterprise is equipped with the best navigation system so Kirk is asked to take up the mission and off they go.

Very soon, the crew are fighting for their survival on the planet Altamid against a dangerous, almost invincible foe named Krall (played by Idris Elba, unrecognizable underneath alien make-up). Also on the planet is another victim of Krall, a scavenger named Jaylah who is trying to find parts to repair an old spaceship so she can escape from the planet. Jaylah (also under a fair bit of make-up) is played by Algerian born actress Sofia Boutella, who made such an impression playing the blade-legged assassin in Kingsman: The Secret Service in 2014. She is the perfect feisty foil for the Enterprise crew and together they try to outwit Krall’s forces, escape Altamid and prevent Krall from unleashing havoc on the rest of the Federation.

As I had mentioned, the film’s plot is written like an extended TV episode, so it doesn’t try too hard to explain how and why things happen. Also, in keeping with the tone of the original series, there are moments of levity, banter and situations that are outright tongue-in-cheek. None more so than when the Enterprise crew need to use an audio signal to disrupt the ship-to-ship coordination signal of Krall’s space force. Since they are with Jaylah on her scavenged old spaceship, they happen to find an entertainment system containing ‘old Earth music’, one of which is Beastie Boys’ Sabotage; perfect disruption music, no? It works like a dream and Justin Lin has choreographed the on-screen action and destruction perfectly to the cadence of the song. I was admiring it and laughing at the ridiculousness of it at the same time!

It all ends like a charm, of course. All key crew members survive and as they toast each other on another successful mission, they are ready once again “to go where no one has gone before”.

There is already talk of a 4th film, one which may feature Capt. Kirk’s deceased father George Kirk. George appeared for a few minutes in the opening sequence of Star Trek (2009) and was played by an then-unknown Aussie actor named Chris Hemsworth. Not surprising then that the filmmakers would be looking for a way to bring the new world famous actor back into the picture.

Studios race to build cinematic universes

We’re all familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe which so far has given rise to several highly successful and mostly well-regarded movies, not just from Marvel’s parent company Disney but also from other studios like Fox and Sony which own the franchise rights for the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man respectively.

The interconnectedness of their titles allows Marvel to launch movies based on new and sometimes little-known characters with the knowledge that they can reduce the financial risk by introducing the character in a related (and already successful) movie series. Some members of the Avengers like Hawkeye and Black Widow were introduced in the Iron Man films and Black Panther was recently introduced in Captain America: Civil War.

Rival comic book powerhouse DC Comics (which is owned by Warner Bros.), actually has the more iconic superheroes by far and has successfully brought both Superman and Batman to the big screen, but had previously been unable to use either film series to launch other characters from their staple. They finally put a roadmap together a few years ago to build a series of films around the Justice League (DC’s version of the Avengers). This started off with Man of Steel in 2013 and followed up with this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, both directed by Zack Snyder and both somewhat disappointing. In the past few months, a senior task force has been assembled to sort out scripting and creative issues. Today’s release of the first trailers for Wonder Woman and Justice League (both due in 2017) indicate that they may have got their act together. As a bonus, Suicide Squad, an R-rated anti-hero movie which was once considered a ‘side-show’ in the DC Cinematic Universe is now among the most anticipated releases of the year and may fuel public interest in the movies to come, possibly even forcing Warner Bros. to include Suicide Squad characters in the other films.

So it’s clear that studios are now looking not just to create franchises but cinematic universes. As per the Marvel formula, a universe can be created by starting with a series featuring one character (e.g. Iron Man) and then by launching new series featuring other lead characters, who were introduced in the original series. Another way to milk an established franchise is by creating spin-off films starring supporting characters or by going backwards or forwards in time within the franchise timeline to tell the story of an earlier or later generation of characters.

The latter approach is exactly what Warner Bros. is trying with the forthcoming release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This is the first in a new trilogy set nearly a hundred years before the events of the Harry Potter films. It narrates the adventures of ‘magizoologist’ Newt Scamander whose book on magical beasts was one of the required school textbooks at Hogwarts. Talk about inventive thinking! I’m sure the folks at Warner Bros. must be looking through all the Harry Potter stories to figure out how many other characters or references can be spun off to further expand the Potter Cinematic Universe.

Disney is employing a combination of both strategies to rejuvenate and extend the 40-year-old Star Wars franchise. Faced with the reality that the original cast are ageing, they introduced a new generation of  characters in last December’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens to whom the torch is passed to continue the good fight against the evil empire. But that’s not all. Disney is also doing a ‘Newt Scamander’ by creating a series of spin-off ‘anthology’ films, which expand on characters and situations from the original trilogy. The first of these is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story releasing at the end of this year. This will be followed two years later by an origin story for Han Solo.

A new universe in the making that I am very excited about is the one coming from Universal Studios. This one will bring together the classic horror monsters which brought the studio great success from the 1930s to the early ’50s. If all goes according to plan, we will get to see Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, The Mummy, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, The Gill-man (from 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Dr. Jekyll all occupy the same cinematic space over the next few years. The first movie in the series was a bit of a misfire – Dracula Untold from 2014. Presumably the studio already knew they had a dud on their hands and therefore refrained from publicly marketing this film as part of a future franchise. Instead, they will launch the franchise with a far surer bet – a new remake of The Mummy set in modern times, starring Tom Cruise scheduled for release in 2017. Russell Crowe will appear in the movie as Dr. Jekyll, perhaps testing waters for a stand-alone Jekyll & Hyde feature. Earlier this year, it was announced that Johnny Depp would star in The Invisible Man for a 2018 release.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. with production partner Legendary Pictures is attempting to create a universe which brings together King Kong and Godzilla. The 2014 remake of Godzilla is being treated as the first film in the ‘giant super-species cinematic universe’ to be followed by Kong: Skull Island in 2017 and Godzilla 2 in 2018.The first trailer for the former was released yesterday and showcases the powerhouse cast of Tom Hiddleston, this year’s Oscar winner Brie Larson and veteran actors Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman. As can be expected, the trailer gives only brief and incomplete glimpses of King Kong. The Godzilla reboot cast the giant reptile as mankind’s savior against two other monsters. Fanboys refer to these monsters by their Japanese appellation kaiju, but in the film they are referred to as MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Obviously, we will see more MUTOs in Godzilla 2 in 2019, possibly from original rights holder Toho’s collection of baddies such as King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan. And so, when Godzilla and Kong meet on-screen in 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong, one can expect city-levelling mayhem that would put even Zack Snyder’s DC films to shame. An intriguing possibility is that Legendary Pictures may find a way to fuse this universe with Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim series which it also produces. This seems highly unlikely though it would be the ultimate kaiju wet dream!

For fans of epic/ big effects films, the next few years promises to be very exciting with superheroes, monsters, aliens and giant creatures invading our theaters. Just make sure you can keep track of how they are all related to each other!


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One thing I love about watching movies is to vicariously experience the culture of faraway lands. An opportunity to see how other people live their lives. The similarities across cultures are sometimes uncanny. I watched an Iranian film a few months ago called The Separation and I swear it was like watching a high quality Hindi melodrama. Of course, as I was watching it, I was making the connection of how Persian culture would have impacted North Indian social culture over so many centuries of intermingling.

Ultimately, no matter how alien a culture is, basic human emotions are all the same. Love and hate, joy and sorrow, anger and fear, all these can be related to, no matter which part of the world it’s from…

So the reason I’m going on this tangent is because I’ve just watched my first Icelandic film, called Hrútar.

I haven’t watched too many films from Scandinavia, by which I mean the broader definition, which in addition to Denmark, Norway and Sweden also includes Finland and Iceland. I’ve watched a few Swedish and Danish films. Four Norwegian films (all from the last 8 years). Three Finnish films (all Aki Kaurismaki). But never one from Iceland. Till now.

Hrútar means ‘sheep’ in Icelandic (the English title of the film is Rams). It is a simple film with the most elementary of plots. There are two brothers. They are both sheep farmers. They live on large plots of grazing land adjacent to each other. They are unmarried and probably in their 60s. But because of an old dispute, they haven’t spoken to each other in decades. Yet, they have to co-exist within a very small and tightly knit sheep farming community. And then a calamity befalls them which threatens their entire way of life. Can they come through without taking each other’s help?

Rams won the Un Certain Regard Prize at Cannes 2015; it is an award which recognizes new and distinct voices in cinema. Frankly, the film isn’t as edgy as the typical Un Certain Regard fare. But the international recognition at Cannes and other festivals in 2015 probably helped it win Best Film at the domestic Edda Awards in February this year.

The film is noteworthy I think because this story could’ve taken place in any part of the world. And the acting is so accessible that very quickly, one stops noticing the racial and geographical differences and gets caught up in the lives of the people.

The lead actor who really makes this film work is Sigurður Sigurjónsson, who plays the younger brother Gummi. He is the more reasonable and sensitive of the two, whereas the older brother Kiddi, is prone to arguing, drunkenness and violent behavior.

When Gummi’s sheep are declared infected with scrapie, a disease that affects their nervous system, similar to Mad Cow Disease, the local authorities declare that the entire herd will have to be culled. The scenes before and after the culling (which Gummi decides to do himself, shooting each sheep individually) are truly heartrending. He has names for his sheep and he speaks to them, hugs them and kisses them before doing the horrible, unavoidable deed.

As can be expected, circumstances force Kiddi to work with Gummi even if he still doesn’t like or trust him. This should be the turning point of the story and the setup for the final act, but it happens surprisingly late in the narrative. After that, there isn’t much of a story left. The two brothers go off into the hills in deep winter in their snowmobile to safeguard the last of their flock from being culled by the authorities. Gummi gets lost but Kiddi eventually finds him in the snow. The film ends with Kiddi desperately trying to warm Gummi back to consciousness, holding him in an embrace which appears to be making up for decades of lost time.

I was hoping for a more upbeat and unambiguous ending, but perhaps that would have been out of character with the cold and stark landscape in which the story takes place. Nevertheless, this is an easily watchable movie which gives you a peek into a faraway culture – exotic locales but familiar emotions.


10 Cloverfield Lane: A creepy survival drama from the JJ Abrams factory

In 2008 January, a found footage monster movie called Cloverfield was released following several months of multi-layered viral marketing. The film told the story of a group of friends who find themselves on the run through the streets of New York as it comes under attack from a giant (mostly unseen) creature. The back story built through the online marketing made the movie a geek’s wet dream and it made $170 million at the global box office. That doesn’t put it into blockbuster status, but it surely turned in a nice little profit on a production budget of just $25 million.

The film was produced by J.J. Abrams, who at that time was known as the guy who had produced the hit TV shows Alias and Lost. Eight years later, Mr. Abrams is a global entertainment powerhouse, the man who has restarted both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises and has taken over as producer of the Mission: Impossible films.

Meanwhile, the Cloverfield geek club had been clamoring for a sequel for several years. The Abrams club has been coy about it, indicating they’d love to do it, but only on their own terms and in their own time.

And then in February this year, when we least expected it, came the trailer to a movie called 10 Cloverfield Lane. It came from Abrams’ Bad Robot production house. Surely, this name couldn’t be a coincidence? Was this the much awaited sequel? How come it was produced in secret, completely the opposite of the high profile marketing campaign of the original?

The answer came from Abrams – this movie is not a sequel to Cloverfield. He called it a “spiritual successor” to the earlier film, but not existing in the same universe or timeline. Abrams likened the connection to that of multiple films which are part of an anthology series. The connecting thread is that both movies feature a large scale attack on a populated area and the story is told at the ‘ground level’ of how some ordinary people survive the attack.

There are basically just three characters in the film. A brave and resourceful young woman, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. A young man, played by John Gallagher Jr. who is trying to do the right thing in unpredictable circumstances. And a man in his 60’s who may or may not be a delusional maniac, played to perfection by John Goodman. These three characters find themselves confined in a surprisingly cheery and well-equipped underground bunker. One wants to keep them all down there for good. One wants to escape. And one doesn’t know what and who to believe.

Unlike the wild camera movements which are characteristic of found-footage films like Cloverfield, the lighting and camera positioning in this film is very conventional, making it easy to focus on the characters and their surroundings.

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This is a genre film that feels like it’s a blend of genres – locked room mystery, character study, suspense thriller, all rolled into one. Towards the end, it rapidly shifts gear and becomes a conventional scifi film. I was reminded a bit of another multi-genre thriller that deconstructed itself rather cheekily, called The Cabin in the Woods. Coincidentally that film was directed by Drew Goddard, who wrote the screenplay for the first Cloverfield. Connections, connections.

Very interesting musical score by composer Bear McCreary, who used a full 90 piece orchestra, with some very strong cello sections, but most interestingly, layered on the sound of an experimental stringed/ percussion instrument from the 70’s, appropriately called a Blaster Beam (check out this article from Wired).

10 Cloverfield Lane is definitely worth the time, if you’re a fan of suspense thrillers. And I look forward to further entries in the Cloverfield anthology from the bad boys at Bad Robot Productions.