The robots are coming, the robots are coming


A few months ago, fans of Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming monsters vs. robots movie Pacific Rim were thrilled to see blueprints of the fighting robots (known as ‘jaegers’ in the movie) pop up on the internet.

There are 5 jaegers as far as we know, each stationed in a different part of the world. Then this week, we have been seeing posters released one by one of 4 of the jaegers so far. These show the robots in color and in action.

Cherno Alpha is the Russian machine, stationed in Vladivostok. This is the ugliest robot of the lot with a strange elongated head structure. In general it looks blocky and very stereotypical Russian!

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The Chinese robot Crimson Typhoon is based in HK. It looks pretty cool with the twin arms and the shoulder blades. The blueprint indicates it has 3 human pilots:-

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Coyote Tango is based in Japan. This jaeger looks quite humanoid and has two long tubes on its back. The poster clearly shows that they are rocket launchers:-

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Sydney is the home base for Striker Eureka. This is the tallest jaeger at 104 m and apparently the most modern and powerful. The poster shows a barrage of missiles being fired from openings in its chest plate:-

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And finally Gypsy Danger, the American jaeger is in Anchorage, Alaska. This one looks the most humanoid and well-proportioned. The poster for Gypsy Danger hasn’t yet been released. I assume it will happen in the next few days.

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The blueprints looked oh-so-real, down to the folds visible on the blueprint for Coyote Tango.

I assume that as we get closer to the release date in July, we may start seeing posters for the Kaiju (monsters) which come to earth through a dimensional rip at the bottom of our oceans. July 12th seems oh so far away!

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Cloud Atlas wasn’t as complicated as the reviews made it out to be


At the end of last year, as I was counting down to the year-end films worth watching, I wrote about my concerns for Cloud Atlas, the movie based on the award-winning book by David Mitchell. The novel consisted of 6 nested stories which are interconnected either thematically or by a plot element; everyone agreed that it would be a daunting task to adapt such a book.  On my part, after the relative disappointment of the Matrix sequels (2003) and the unwatchable Speed Racer (2008), I was really worried that the Wachowskis’ creative well had run dry.

Then the movie was released and my fears seemed to be valid as it tanked in the US, grossing just $27 million and didn’t do enough in the rest of the world (another $97 million) to recover its budget.

Critics were sharply divided. Its average Metacritic score is 55, but that doesn’t tell the story. Scores range from 100 for Roger Ebert’s review to just 50 for Richard Corliss and 40 for Kenneth Turan of the LA Times. Rottentomatoes which aggregates scores from non-US markets gave it a 67% score.

I eventually saw the film a few days ago and am happy to say it wasn’t as bloated (it has a run time of 172 minutes) or complicated as the reviews indicated.

No doubt, the directors (the Wachowski siblings + Tom Tykwer) chose to change the story structure so that all the stories are being told simultaneously, rather than in the nested structure of the book. They also chose to use the same actors to play characters who are ‘thematically linked’ across the different stories. The two decisions are interconnected and they work in my opinion. Although it took me a few minutes to switch my brain into this gear, I thereafter found it relatively easy to follow the multiple storylines and get a sense of the common thread running through them.

I really enjoyed the multiple performances of Tom Cruise, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving and Jim Broadbent (among others)…bolstered by some spectacular make-up (yes, yes some of it doesn’t work that well)…in some cases with actors playing characters of the opposite gender. Among the lesser known actors, I thought James D’Arcy was quite impressive as well as Jim Sturgess and Ben Whishaw (the new ‘Q’ in Skyfall)…all British actors. With such a large cast, some characters invariably don’t work out and Halle Berry’s Meronym was one such character, although her Luisa Rey was quite good.

The special effects were fantastic and it goes to show just how much can be achieved on a budget of $100 million when a film is shot in Europe using a largely European cast and crew, plus some big American stars who were willing to put aside financial considerations to make this project come to life.

My favourite segment was probably the Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) segment from the present time which played like a black comedy…and oh, wasn’t it a pleasure to see Nurse Noakes (Hugo Weaving) get her comeuppance at the end of the segment? Equally engaging was the opening segment set in the South Pacific Ocean in 1849 featuring the dastardly Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks with prosthetic nose, teeth and all). Perhaps the weakest segment was the one set in the far future, but this too had a happy enough ending with a grizzled and scarred Zachry (Tom Hanks again) seated around a fire telling his grandchildren stories (in fact, it transpires that he is the person telling all the stories).

Definitely worth a try as long as you go in with an open mind. Watching it on DVD will make it even easier as viewers will be able to go back and forth to sort out any continuity issues. I enjoyed the film sufficiently that I have now started reading the book, armed with the prior knowledge of plot and characters!

Tennis: a sport searching for a surface


Tennis is perhaps the only major global sport which does not have a single standardized playing surface. Obviously, when the modern game was first developed in the late 19th century, it was primarily played on grass (hence ‘Lawn Tennis’) and in fact, until 1974 three of the four Grand Slams (except the French Open) were played on grass. Over the past 100+ years, the sport has experimented with a number of surface types.

While the lack of standardization separates tennis from other major professional sports, it has also created variety in the game and allowed players of different styles to emerge and dominate the game over the years.

However, over the years tournaments have progressively dropped ‘high maintenance surfaces’ like grass and carpet in favor of durable surfaces like hard court and clay. In fact, grass is now restricted to just one Grand Slam and 3-4 tournaments that take place just before and after Wimbledon. I find it ridiculous that there is not a single Masters 1000 tournament played on grass; surely Queen’s Club is prestigious enough that it could have an expanded field and upgraded to a Masters 1000 status? How many more Masters tournaments would Roger Federer have won if this had been so? Similarly, carpet was a popular surface, especially for indoor tournaments and the year-end ATP championships have been held on this surface as well. It helped players with big serves, but helped baseliners and serve-and-volleyers equally well. Unfortunately, the ATP has not used this as an official surface since 2009…apparently to slow down the game.

So, over the years, both grass courts and carpet have been abandoned, while hard courts and clay courts have proliferated. Rallies have become longer, while big servers no longer have the advantage as they did until the 1990’s. But the increase in hard courts has come at a price and in recent years, Rafa Nadal has made much of the fact that the large number of hard court tournaments are responsible for injuries and are threatening to shorten tennis careers – his in particular!

I feel that the ATP must make one of two decisions. One – they can adopt a single surface as other global sports have done; create an all new artificial surface which is soft enough not to destroy players’ bodies, but has a ‘medium’ speed which supports all types of play. Or, they should embrace the fact that variety adds dimension to the sport and go back to having different tournaments with different surfaces. But certainly, the current practice of having the sport dominated by a super-slow clay surface and a super-hard and injury-inducing hard surface seems to be a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

The big stars come out to play this summer


It’s not often that we get all the stars to appear in the box office sky during the same summer, but 2013 looks like it’s going to be one to remember.

Tom Cruise, Robert Downey Jr., Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Channing Tatum (twice), Hugh Jackman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, Bruce Willis and Matt Damon will all grace the silver screen during the 5 month period beginning April.

Even more exciting for me is that so many of them are appearing in science fiction or superhero genres.

Technically, I don’t yet consider Channing Tatum to be an A-list box office star, but who am I to argue against a guy who had three 100 million dollar hits last year? I don’t know if the man can anchor an action movie all by himself, but he won’t have to worry about that in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, releasing at the end of March. He’s going to have Bruce Willis and Dwayne Johnson for company. This film was delayed by a year for conversion to 3D. I guess it will be a modest box office hit…at least, the fight scene on the cliff looks really cool.

A week later, in April Tom Cruise returns to the scifi genre in Joseph Kosinski’s follow up to TRON:Legacy, called Oblivion. The trailers look good (in fact, each new one has been better than the last), the poster looks good, there’s a supporting cast of solid character actors and the screenplay has been co-written by Oscar winner Michael Arndt…yes, the man who has been hired to write the new Star Wars movie.

In the first week of May, Robert Downey Jr. puts the red and gold suit on again for Iron Man 3. This time, action screenwriting god Shane Black is in the director’s chair and one of my all time favorite cinematographers John Toll (Oscar winner for Braveheart and Legends of the Fall) is the DP…Mr. Toll is primarily an outdoor scenery specialist, so I was initially surprised to see him in the hi-tech metal world of Iron Man. But the trailers indicate that Tony Stark is going to be stripped down to the essentials and on the run, so that probably explains the choice. By all accounts, this promises to be yet another hit for Marvel.

A week later, Leo DiCaprio is back on screen as Jay Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the 1920’s set literary classic The Great Gatsby. Mr. Luhrmann is a bit of a hit or miss director, but always a good bet for visual spectacle, so this will be a closely watched effort. If he gets it right, then it will be one of the few summer releases that will still be talked during Oscar nominations season at the end of the year.

In June, we get to see Will Smith and Jaden Smith reunite on screen; the last time was 7 years ago in The Pursuit of Happyness. Smith junior is all grown up now and will probably get as much screen time, if not more, than papa. This is Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan’s first venture into the world of science fiction, and since most of the world still seems to hate director M. Night Shyamalan, I think this is another hit-or-miss star vehicle this summer.

A couple of weeks later, Mr. Brad Pitt tries to save the world from a zombie apocalypse in World War Z, the movie (non-)adaptation of the Max Brooks’ breakthrough book. Although the movie is a big departure from the book, the direction in which scriptwriter Matthew Carnahan (brother of director Joe) has taken the film actually bodes quite well for its box office prospects. It looks like out and out action, with some pretty hard hitting zombie attack scenes. This is director Marc Forster’s big chance to redeem himself after the Bond misfire Quantum of Solace.

Channing Tatum is back in the 3rd week of June with White House Down…another case of 2 similarly themed movies hitting the theatres in the same year (Olympus Has Fallen releases in mid-April with Aaron Eckhart as President and Gerard Butler as his saviour). In White House Down, the prez is played by Jamie Foxx…somehow with both the White House action films, I feel that the actor playing the President is cooler than the Secret Service guy trying to save his life.

The July 4th weekend brings in a very high risk blockbuster – Gore Verbinski’s Lone Ranger, where the big star Johnny Depp doesn’t play the lead character but his sidekick Tonto instead. The trailer looks like fun, but Westerns have been box office poison for many decades and it will be interesting to see if Mr. Depp’s charisma is good enough to keep this expensive film afloat. The director and the star have a great working relationship from the 3 Pirates of the Caribbean movies they worked on together. Mr. Verbinski also brought a very edgy sensibility into a Wild West setting in the Oscar-winning animation film Rango a couple of years ago. So, perhaps this will indeed be the Western that bucks the trend.

In the last week of July, we get to see our 2nd Marvel hero of the summer with Hugh Jackman returning to the screen for the 5th time (not including his cameo in X-Men: First Class) as Wolverine. Director James Mangold has directed some great movies in the past like CopLand, 3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line; when the script is good, he is great at portraying strong silent lead characters. That’s just what The Wolverine needs after the horrible mess left by its predecessor X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009. The source material for the new movie is the much beloved 1980’s mini-series from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, set in Japan. As in the case of Iron Man 3, it appears that there will be a ‘back to basics’ approach to this film, which can only bode well for the outcome.

In early August, Denzel Washington appears in a rather low key film called 2 Guns alongside Mark Wahlberg. Denzel’s most successful films have usually had him share on-screen time with a strong partner or adversary, so the formula is at work here again. Icelandic actor turned director Baltazar Kormakur is still new to the Hollywood game, so I don’t expect too much interest in this Action-drama entry at the tail end of the summer.

And finally, to round off the summer, Matt Damon appears as a shaven-headed buffed up mercenary in Neill Blomkamp’s Elyisum, alongside Jodie Foster. I am really waiting to see this film, as it’s a follow-up to the outstanding District 9 and is sure to have a strong undercurrent of socio-political commentary, besides some kick-ass special effects from Peter Jackson’s WETA.

So there you have it…the most star-struck summer in many years. There are too many variables at this stage to say who is going to come out on top of the heap. Of course, on top of all that, we will also have to keep an eye out for Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness and Pacific Rim which are guaranteed blockbusters in spite of not having any A-list stars on board. The only big name missing from the list above is George Clooney, who is busy directing and starring in The Monuments Men and acting in the risky scifi space thriller Gravity, both of which will come out at the end of the year.

Coyote: Allen Steele’s realistic story of interstellar colonization


The full title of Allen Steele’s SF novel is Coyote: A Novel of Interstellar Exploration. Mr. Steele belongs to the WYSIWYG style of writing. As such, Coyote reads like a matter-of-fact historical record, comprised of third person accounts interspersed with first person diary extracts. In fact, Mr. Steele says in his foreword that he was inspired to write a novel about the exploration of a frontier, much like the early colonization of America in the 1600s. It certainly worked for me! I enjoyed being able to focus on the characters and the plot without being distracted by hyperbole, complex narrative structures or abstract philosophical discussions.

The style of the novel therefore is very reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, which chronicled the early years of colonization and terraforming of the red planet. Mr. Robinson used his novel to explore how scientists would have to balance political ideology with scientific curiosity while trying to tame a new frontier. Coyote is not as ambitious a novel, but nevertheless tackles similar themes. Instead of cardboard cutout heroes, we have very realistic characters, who are placed in extraordinary situations and make the best decisions they can within the limits of their skill, intelligence and emotional maturity. Since the colonists have formed an agrarian society on Coyote, while retaining elements of digital technology, there are also strong thematic parallels with the early stories in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series.

The chapters in Coyote were initially published as short stories and so, they are naturally episodic in nature. This is useful because every episode has some references to past events for the benefit of those who may not have read the earlier short stories. Apparently, Mr. Steele was inspired to do this by the fact that some classic SF novels of the 50’s (like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation) were first published in serialized form.

Coyote has 3 Acts, the first on Earth in the days leading up to the launch of the starship Alabama, the second act describes an incident that occurs during the 230 year flight of the Alabama to the 47 Ursae Majoris system and the third and longest act covers the exploration of the planet Coyote (actually it is a large moon which orbits around a Saturn-like gas giant named Bear; all the planets derive their names from Native American mythology).

The first Act which is an entire chapter, plays out like a political thriller. It is the year 2070 and the US is ruled by a right-wing totalitarian government, the outcome of a second civil war some years earlier. It has poured billions of dollars and bankrupted the country in the process. While the stated aim of the ship is to establish earth’s first interstellar colony, several intellectuals and dissidents see it as an attempt by the United Republic to extend its fascist reach across space and time. While preparations are underway for the launch of the ship, the dissidents are attempting to escape persecution and to subvert the government’s interstellar ambitions. The chapter ends with the launch of the Alabama, with several dissidents on board.

The second Act takes place on board the ship, soon after launch. One of the crew Leslie Gillis is accidentally awoken from cryo-sleep and cannot find a way to put himself back into hibernation. He is condemned to live out the rest of his days on his own and the chapter tells the harrowing story of his emotional and physical roller-coaster ride over a period of several years. It is a very unusual to find a story segment like this in SF novels and it is written with a great deal of sensitivity and insight. It will remain as one of my favorite passages in any SF novel I have read.

The last Act is spread across a number of chapters and clearly each of these chapters was published as a standalone story, as they are episodic in nature. It deals with the arrival of the Alabama colonists in Coyote orbit and the establishment of the colony of Liberty on Coyote. It covers the dangerous early days of exploration and various adventures which take place in the months that follow. As in Robinson’s Mars Trilogy and McCaffrey’s Pern novels, the episodes help us understand more about the planet and the nature of the society that evolves on it, besides establishing a number of important characters who feature in future Coyote stories.

The book ends with the arrival of another ship from Earth, one that was launched almost two centuries later with a near-light-speed drive, allowing it to reach Coyote in just 40-something years. The ship is named Seeking Glorious Destiny Among The Stars For The Greater Good Of Social Collectivism. That should give you a pretty good idea of the political ideology of the government that launched it; clearly, things haven’t improved on good old Earth. The original Alabama colonists are in no hurry to go back to a totalitarian government and so they abandon Liberty to the newcomers and establish a hidden colony on another part of the planet.

Coyote is a throwback to the golden age of SF, when the focus of stories was the characters and the plot rather than detailed descriptions of technology or alien life. Mr. Steele’s planet is rather simplistic, with an improbably small variety of flora and fauna. He is more concerned with the interactions and ideologies of the colonists than in writing a scientific treatise on exobiology. Although I am a self-confessed fan of modern hard SF, I found myself drawn to this simple storytelling style…small wonder that I immediately picked up the sequel Coyote Rising and will start on the third book Coyote Frontier in a few days. Coyote Rising is less thought-provoking than the first novel; more of a straight up alien planet adventure story. Nevertheless, it does contain some memorable characters (one of them, Zoltan Shirow, is almost as tragic as Leslie Gillis from the first novel) and incidents.

Allen Steele has so far published 8 books in the Coyote universe – the original trilogy, two subsequent novels – Coyote Horizon and Coyote Destiny – together referred to as the Coyote Chronicles and three more spinoff novels titled Spindrift, Galaxy Blues and Hex.  The last of these books, Hex was published in 2011, so the series is well and truly alive and I wouldn’t put it past Mr. Steele to continue expanding the Coyote universe.

“Argo pat yourself!”


In this era of super-spies – Ethan Hunt, Jason Bourne and James Bond – it is refreshing to watch a movie about a real spy, who just does his job without any over-the-top heroics. I’m talking about the character of Tony Mendez played with admirable restraint by Ben Affleck in Argo.

Although based on a true story, screenwriter Chris Terio has taken several liberties in order to build up the tension, especially towards the end. In spite of all that, this is a spy film without femme fatales, gadgets or high-speed car chases. Heck, the hero doesn’t even carry a gun!

As perhaps everyone knows by now, Argo tells the story of a daring plan (“the best of all the bad ideas”, as described by one of the characters in the film) to exfiltrate 6 American embassy staff out of Iran in the midst of the US hostage crisis of 1979-81. The deed is accomplished by a single CIA exfiltration specialist, Tony Mendez, who enters Iran under the pretext of scouting locations for a science fiction movie named Argo. In the immediate years following the worldwide success of Star Wars, Hollywood was inundated with such knock-offs, which like Star Wars would use exotic locations in the Middle East to represent alien planetscapes. In order to make the story hold water, Mr. Mendez worked with a couple of people in Hollywood to set up a genuine production for the movie, including purchasing the script, setting up a public reading with actors and cast members and getting an article published in the Hollywood trade paper Variety. All this was achieved in a matter of days, as the window of time available to get the embassy staff out of Iran was starting to close.

The actors playing the US embassy escapees are all uniformly good, Affleck’s direction keeps everything low key, with none of the histrionics that actors would be tempted to employ if they were portraying people who have been in hiding for a couple of months in a hostile country. But the real standouts for me were the two Hollywood characters who made the entire Argo project possible, make-up artist John Chambers and producer Lester Siegel, played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin respectively. Mr. Arkin was Oscar-nominated for his performance – his 4th acting nomination in 46 years (yes, you read that right) – of which he won once in 2007 for Little Miss Sunshine.

As with all Hollywood films these days, Argo scores high on technical proficiency. The ’70’s make-up and sets are flawless. The seamless editing and the spare use of music both succeed in ratcheting up the tension. This is one of those  ‘perfect’ films, which manages to hold the audience’s attention right to the end, in spite of the outcome being a matter of public record. Although I was supporting Lincoln to win the Oscar for Best Picture, I don’t grudge Argo its win. Perhaps when having to make the difficult choice between 2-3 very well made movies in a tightly packed field, Hollywood couldn’t help but pat itself on the back for its role in this noble endeavor!