Axis of Time: John Birmingham’s excellent time-travel military thriller

In typical time travel stories like The Time Machine or Back to the Future or TimeCop, the protagonist goes back or forward in time and has to use his brains and skills to get back ‘home’ to his original timeline. The populace at large remain unaware of the time-traveller’s presence and at best there are a few people or a love interest who help our intrepid hero in his task. Even in the case of a Star Trek IV, where it’s not one person, but an entire spaceship and its crew who arrive from the future, they still manage to keep their presence a secret.

That is certainly not the case in Australian novelist John Birmingham’s Axis of Time military sci-fi trilogy, which was published over the period 2004-2007. I finally got hold of the books – Weapons of Choice, Designated Targets and Final Impact – and read them back-to-back over the last 3 weeks.

In Weapons of Choice, a US-led multinational naval battle group from 2021 is accidentally flung back in time to the middle of World War II, literally arriving in the midst of the US fleet heading for the Battle of Midway.

Unlike the time-travel novels mentioned earlier, there is no question here of the protagonist quietly sneaking around the past. Instead, their arrival – subsequently referred to as ‘Emergence’ or ‘Transition’ – becomes worldwide public knowledge within a few days and threatens to change the course of the war. Also, as Admiral Kolhammer of the 2021 battle group discovers, their trip to the past is a one-way affair, with no hope of getting back to their own time and their loved ones lost forever.

While it would appear that the Allied forces have gained a significant advantage by suddenly having access to advanced military technology from 70 years in the future, a couple of ships also experience spatial displacement along with the time shift, and land up in the clutches of Japanese forces and the Soviets. In a matter of weeks, the technological advantage of the Allies has been neutralized to a significant extent, with both the Germans and the Japanese desperately trying to adapt and adopt the future technologies. In addition, the Axis Powers throw men and materiel at the Allies in mass-scale suicide attacks in the hope of exhausting their limited supply of future weapons inventory.

The course of the war takes many twists and turns which are quite different from our own reality, but as they say, the more things change the more they stay the same, and by mid-1944, the end result broadly looks the same as it did in our timeline. The Allies win the war, but are faced with a long-drawn Cold War with a Soviet Bloc, which appears to be even stronger than it was in our reality.

And indeed, what turns out to be more potent than the advanced weaponry carried by the 2021 battle group, is the information carried in the libraries of these ships…the Americans, Germans and Soviets are all able to accelerate their nuclear programs, with one of the nations even getting into bio-warfare…men like Stalin, Hitler and J. Edgar Hoover are forewarned of their enemies and respective fates…enterprising con-men in the early days of the Emergence are able to sign-up future stars like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe on long-term contracts…a number of companies, including movie studios race to patent their own products from the future…General Eisenhower and Lt. John F. Kennedy who are both fighting in the war, are faced with the uncomfortable public knowledge of their future Presidencies, along with the attendant uncertainty of whether their futures will still play out in the same way…most significantly, the Germans realize that their undoing in the original time-line was their ill-advised assault on the Soviet Union and Hitler quickly brokers a cease-fire with Stalin.

For the people of 1942, what is more shocking than the technological advancement of the 21st century time-travellers is the changes in society of the ‘up-timers’. When the American naval officers from the 1940’s come on-board the ships from the future, they are appalled to see a multi-ethnic fighting crew including women in leadership positions…or to paraphrase one of the characters, “they’ve got Negroes, Spics, Kikes and Broads running their ships”. Indeed, many of them wonder if this is the future that they are fighting for, while the 21-ers struggle to control their disgust and frustration with the segregation and sexist attitudes from the past.

Overall, the books are a fast-paced read, but also have a great deal of emotional depth. While Mr. Birmingham excels at descriptions of battle scenes and the use of 21st century technology, he is equally adept at diving into the personal lives of the large cast of characters. There are also some light touches with a number of references and ‘in-jokes’ related to scifi novels, novelists and other famous people from the present.

Thematically, this trilogy is very similar to Harry Turtledove’s alternate history Worldwar Series published in mid-90’s, which feature an alien invasion of Earth in the midst of World War II. In those stories, the arrival of the lizard-like ‘Race’ introduces advanced weaponry into the terrestrial conflict and also leads to unlikely alliances. Another series with a thematic similarity is Eric Flint’s 1632 series, in which a small American town is mysteriously trans-located through space and time into the midst of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) in Central Europe. In fact, both these series are referenced in the Axis of Time books.

I can certainly imagine the Axis of Time trilogy being adapted one day into a big-budget TV mini-series. The battle scenes would have the savagery of Saving Private Ryan while the personal stories of the men and women fighting the war would have the dramatic intensity of movies like From Here to Eternity.

Meanwhile, Mr. Birmingham has continued in the same vein of speculative fiction with a new series starting with the novel Without Warning, in which the bulk of the US population mysteriously disappears on the eve of the 2003 Iraq Invasion. While I thoroughly enjoyed the Axis of Time, I think this new series is too similar in theme and risks branding the writer as a one-trick pony.


Tony Scott: A tribute to his work with some of the greatest actors of our time

For someone who was a latecomer to Hollywood (he made his first movie only at the age of 38), Tony Scott was fortunate to have worked with the who’s who of the film industry. After years directing commercials along with his brother Ridley Scott, he came to Hollywood to direct his first film, the vampire thriller The Hunger in 1983. He made 16 films over the course of the next 27 years and worked with the biggest names of the day.

  • Catherine Deneuve – French acting legend Deneuve played vampire Miriam Blaylock in The Hunger, Tony Scott’s debut film in 1983.
  • David Bowie – Rock star Bowie typically plays roles that require an ‘exotic’ look, such as the alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976. He played vampire John Blaylock in The Hunger.
  • Susan Sarandon – By 1983, Sarandon was already a well-established Oscar-nominated actress. She completed the love triangle in The Hunger, playing Dr. Sarah Roberts. She went on to star in Ridley Scott’s hit film Thelma & Louise 8 years later.
  • Tom Cruise – Tony Scott made Tom Cruise a bona fide household name with his second directorial effort, Top Gun in 1986. In the same year, Cruise appeared in Martin Scorsese’s Color of Money opposite screen legend Paul Newman and the rest was history for Cruise. Tony Scott and Tom Cruise continued their affair with speed in Days of Thunder in 1990, but couldn’t recreate the magic of Top Gun.
  • Val Kilmer – Val Kilmer got his big break playing Tom Cruise’s rival in Top Gun. He worked with Tony Scott again in True Romance in 1993.
  • Kelly McGillis – McGillis had just come off the critically acclaimed drama Witness opposite Harrison Ford and her star climbed even higher after appearing as the flight instructor and love interest in Top Gun.
  • Eddie Murphy – The next big star to work with Tony Scott after Top Gun was Eddie Murphy in the highly anticipated sequel Beverly Hills Cop II, released in 1987. The sequel didn’t reach the heights of the original…it was the 3rd highest grossing film of the year in the US…but was a big hit overseas.
  • Kevin Costner – Kevin Costner was perhaps the hottest actor in America in the late ‘80s having consecutive critical and commercial success as a leading man with The Untouchables, No Way Out, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. His next collaboration was with Tony Scott in the crime thriller Revenge. Unfortunately, the film was a rare failure for Costner, although he recovered quickly with Dances with Wolves and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
  • Anthony Quinn – International acting legend Anthony Quinn entered his 7th decade in the movies by playing crime boss Tibby Mendez in Revenge.
  • Nicole Kidman – After grabbing attention in the boat thriller Dead Calm, Kidman got her big break acting opposite Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder and they got married soon after.
  • Bruce Willis – Tony Scott’s next film after Days of Thunder featured one of the biggest action stars of the day, Bruce Willis, fresh off his two Die Hard movies. The Last Boy Scout was one of 4 Bruce Willis films released in 1991, though none of them got any box office traction.
  • Christian Slater – By the early ‘90s, Slater had emerged as a young heartthrob in films like skateboarding drama Gleaming the Cube and western actioner Young Guns II as well as a supporting role in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Tony Scott signed him on for the crime-romance-thriller True Romance, based on a script by Quentin Tarentino, who had just rocked the establishment with Reservoir Dogs. The film was a box office failure, but retains a strong fan following to this day.
  • Denzel Washington – Denzel Washington’s star was on the rise when he signed up for Tony Scott’s acclaimed submarine thriller Crimson Tide. He had just acted in some of the biggest critical and commercial hits of the early ‘90s, such as Mississippi Masala, Malcolm X, The Pelican Brief and Philadephia. Crimson Tide was one of the bigger hits of 1995. Nearly a decade later, they worked together again in the kidnap thriller Man on Fire and this sparked a string of collaborations over the next few years, such as Déjà Vu (2006), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) and Unstoppable (2010).
  • Gene Hackman – Veteran character actor Gene Hackman played Captain Ramsey opposite Denzel Washington’s Lt. Commander Hunter in Crimson Tide. He went on to appear in Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State 3 years later.
  • Robert de Niro – In 1996, acting legend de Niro played unhinged baseball fan Gil Renard in the adaptation of Peter Abrahams’ novel The Fan. The film was a major failure at the box office.
  • Wesley Snipes – Tony Scott got Wesley Snipes to play baseball player Bobby Rayburn in The Fan. Snipes had just come off a series of high profile action films like Passenger 57, Demolition Man, Drop Zone and Money Train. He also demonstrated his acting chops playing drag queen Noxeema in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.
  • Benicio del Toro – del Toro had just come off the sleeper hit The Usual Suspects when he was cast in The Fan. Four years later he would go on to win an Oscar for his role as Javier Rodriguez in Traffic.
  • Will Smith – In 1996, Will Smith rocketed to fame as Capt. Steven Hiller in Independence Day, one of the biggest blockbusters of modern times. A year later, he cemented his position as an A-list star by anchoring Men in Black. He followed up these two monster hits by teaming up with Tony Scott in the surveillance thriller Enemy of the State opposite Gene Hackman.
  • Robert Redford – At the start of the millennium, Tony Scott got the most charismatic star of the ‘70s to pair off with his modern counterpart in Spy Game. The expensive film failed to recover its money at the box office although it had reasonable reviews from critics.
  • Brad Pitt – Brad Pitt had a small role in Tony Scott’s True Romance in 1993, soon after being ‘discovered’ in brother Ridley’s Thelma & Louise a couple of years earlier. By the time, he appeared in Spy Game, he was a major global star with hits like Interview with the Vampire, Se7en, Twelve Monkeys and Fight Club. At the time of Tony Scott’s death, Brad Pitt was filming Ridley Scott’s The Counselor.
  • Keira Knightley – Domino, released in 2005, is an unusual entry in the resumes of both Tony Scott and Keira Knightley. Other than The Hunger, this is Tony Scott’s lowest grossing film ever. It received mostly negative reviews and it appears the studio New Line Cinema didn’t really want to release it after having made it. The real life subject of the movie, Domino Harvey died of a drug overdoes a few months before the release of the film.
  • Mickey Rourke – Troubled actor Mickey Rourke had a supporting role in Man on Fire in 2004 and reunited with Tony to play the key role of bounty hunter Ed Moseby in Domino.
  • John Travolta – Travolta had just appeared in two of the big comic hits of 2007 – playing Edna Turnblad in drag in the musical hit Hairspray and Woody Stevens in the buddy road comedy Wild Hogs. He followed these up by signing up for Tony Scott’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. This marked a return to the over-the-top bad guy roles he had perfected in earlier films like Swordfish and The Punisher (not to mention his unmentionable performance as the alien Terl in Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000).

The majority of Mr. Scott’s work remains firmly pinned in the genre of formulaic summer action thriller, but he somehow tapped into the dynamics of human conflict and used that to tell engaging stories. He leaves behind a legacy of having worked with the biggest names in Hollywood and in the case of actors like Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer and Nicole Kidman, he made them household names across the world. In addition, he was brother Ridley’s creative partner and co-producer. It is difficult to imagine the personal and professional impact of his untimely death on Ridley Scott and the actors that he worked with over the years.

Jose Padilha’s ultraviolent Brazilian Cop drama paves the way for a remake of RoboCop

After a successful career in Holland, Paul Verhoeven became the king of ultra-violent scifi action films in Hollywood from the late ’80s to mid ’90s, mixing in liberal doses of sex and biting social satire to create instant classics like RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man. Along the way, he made his most famous (infamous?) Hollywood movie of all, Basic Instinct.

Not surprising that Hollywood studios are now looking at remaking a few of his films. I have been reading about the upcoming RoboCop remake for some time, with the same mix of trepidation and excitement that I felt when I heard about the Total Recall remake, which was released a few days ago.

I have not yet watched the Total Recall remake; Colin Farrell ain’t no Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kate Beckinsdale ain’t no Sharon Stone and Len Wiseman certainly ain’t no Paul Verhoeven, although he did do a good job resurrecting Bruce Willis’ action career with Live Free or Die Hard.

Anyway, back to the RoboCop reboot/ remake. What made RoboCop such a breakout hit and a cultural phenomenon in 1987 was the way Verhoeven used a basic scifi B-movie plot to talk about corruption, corporate greed and urban decay. To do justice to the original movie, the remake would have to engage in similar levels of social commentary, rather than just creating shiny new versions of ED-209 and the RoboCop suit. Let’s face it, RoboCop writers Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner didn’t really have much of a career in Hollywood outside of the RoboCop series (which went steadily downhill with the sequels). So, it really was the way in which Verhoeven translated their script from page to screen that made the movie so powerful.

The articles about the remake all referred to director Jose Padilha, who I had never heard of. I kept wanting to check up on him, but somehow never got around to it. Then yesterday, I felt like checking out if there were any good Brazilian movies worth watching. So far, I have seen only 3 Brazilian films, they are Central Station, City of God and Carandiru. All are set in Rio and all of them deal with slums, poverty, crime, violence and drugs. When I was searching through, I saw that the #1 movie for 2010 was a Brazilian film, which is very unusual, because the top movies in most countries are Hollywood movies like Avatar, The Dark Knight or The Avengers. This Brazilian film was Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within. Naturally, I checked online about the first movie, Elite Squad and discovered that it is one of the most critically and commercially successful Brazilian movies of all time, having even won the Golden Bear at the Venice Film Festival in 2008. And lo and behold, the director of both the films is none other than Mr. Jose Padilha.

I watched the movie yesterday and no surprises, it is about slums, poverty, crime, violence and drugs. This is an ultra-violent account of an anti-drug SWAT team in Rio which goes up against police corruption and the slum-based drug lords. The film is shot in semi-documentary style and is extremely intense, almost as tough a viewing experience for me as City of God a few years ago. On the basis of what I have seen, I can understand why Jose Padilha has been chosen to direct RoboCop, as he will make the film really gritty and hard-hitting. I am not sure how he will handle the black humour and social satire which was what made the original so special. I am already seeing the names of three different script writers in the credits, so I hope this is not going to become a mash-up of a bunch of different ideas.

A viral campaign has already begun with a website purported to belong to the Omnicorp, the company which manufactures RoboCop and ED-209.

RoboCop is scheduled for release in August 2013. Hopefully, it will be a bigger success than the Total Recall remake which is probably not going to make its money back.