John Evans' Blog

Marathon Debriefing

by on Jan.30, 2008, under Uncategorized

So! This weekend I went back to MIT to attend the annual LSC Sci-Fi Marathon!

Of course it was a rather involved endeavor. First I took the train to New York City, then the subway to Chinatown, then Fung Wah Bus to Boston’s South Station. (The famous Chinatown buses, only $15 from NYC to Boston! Of course it takes four hours, but even a train wouldn’t be much faster than that.) Once in Boston I took the subway to various places; Tokyo Kid in Harvard Square (where I picked up the first volume of Chibi Vampire to read; cute series). Then I made it to Central Square, visiting Harvest Co-Op (with a renovated storefront and cafe area stuffed with Wi-Fi users) and Pandemonium Books, where I picked up Annals of the Heechee by Frederik Pohl, along with finally getting my hands on Polaris (very interesting). Oh, and I stopped at Million Year Picnic as well.

After that, it was time to go to MIT!

The first movie was Galaxy Quest. This was the second time I’d seen it. The one bad thing about this movie is that there is a certain amount of embarrassment, which is something that always makes me uncomfortable. Still, it was a good movie. One thing I noticed was that everyone in the movie was really on the ball in terms of acting; You really felt their characters. Tim Allen’s character, for example, despite being stupid and egotistical, managed to be sympathetic as well. (Which was a good thing, as he was the viewpoint character…) Oh, and Tony Shaloub was quite interesting. I have no idea how to put into words the way he played his character–borderline autistic? But it was incredibly funny. His comic timing is excellent.

Not a movie I would have chosen to see, but it was certainly well done. It all took place on a ship traveling to the sun. The realization of the ship, the combination of computer graphics and sets, was very well done. Not to mention the thought that went into just what would be involved in a ship traveling to the sun. The cinematography was beautiful. The acting was top-notch on all accounts. There were a few oddities or wrinkles, though, especially in the story…There’s a sequence where they go onto a derelict ship and there are curious flashes of a picture, almost like subliminal frames. I believe it was supposed to heighten the sinister atmosphere of that part of the film. I’m not quite sure it worked, but it was a bold and interesting move. The audience giggled a bit, though. Also, ultimately I realized the whole thing was basically a monster movie, where characters get picked off one by one and you just wonder who will survive at the end. (Oh, and they got exposure to space wrong; I happened to have looked that up recently, so I could tell it was exaggerated.) Ultimately, though, you just kinda have to go along with it. I’m still a little puzzled about some of the images and symbols…the woman holding a sprout in her lap, that kind of thing. Oh well, whatever.

Of course it wouldn’t be the Sci-Fi Marathon without Gravity, a spoof of 50s educational films featuring cunnilingus. (Or at least that’s what we assume it features.) Gravity is hilarious, and I recommend it. We also saw a very old Superman cartoon, “Superman vs. the Mechanical Monsters”. Two interesting things about this one. First, the animation was really quite good. Very few corners cut. Second, the robots looked surprisingly like the ones from Laputa (Castle in the Sky). Beyond that, it was about as simple a plot as you could get.

Then we had something really interesting; Nothing in the Dark, an episode of the original Twilight Zone. Original airdate Jan. 5, 1962, featuring a very young Robert Redford and a couple of not-so-subtle metaphors.

Oh, and we also saw The Chubb-Chubbs, by now a Sci-Fi staple, and the new The Chubb-Chubbs Save Xmas. They were fun, but not much else to say about that.

Now, when you’re sitting and watching the Marathon, you never quite know what you’re going to see next. It could be a Chubb-Chubbs film, it could be a preview of an upcoming movie (which looks like it will rock, by the way), it could be a trailer for a classic sci-fi film like Weird Science (why didn’t they have Oingo Boingo playing through the entire trailer instead of just a moment? oh well…).

So when you see a CG image of the Earth spinning in space and hear a LaFontaine-esque voiceover, you don’t bat an eye.

Except that this one ended with a guy saying “Will you marry me?”. Yes, he used the Sci-Fi Marathon to propose to his girlfriend. This was simultaneously one of the most geeky and romantic things I’d ever seen.

After a few moments a spotlight picked out a couple in the audience hugging and kissing. We all cheered. (And a bunch of people took pictures, which I thought was a little rude…oh well.)

Of course, I’m not sure this was the best Marathon at which to do this, given the nature of the movies…

Then it was time for The Host (Gwoemul), a Korean monster movie. (South Korean, I’m sure.) This one was kind of odd. The basic plot can be summed up rather simply…A monster attacks people, steals a bunch of them away to its hideout for later digestion. Then one family gets a phone call from their daughter, who is still alive in the monster’s hideout. So they defy the army quarantine and seek her out, eventually killing the monster. The acting, cinematography and effects were all top-notch, although I occasionally felt a sort of cultural disconnect, like I wasn’t quite “getting” something (kind of how I’ve felt watching some anime). And of course, the Koreans seem as fond of tragedy as the Japanese.

Along the way, however, there were some odd things. There was a plot about how the Korean and US governments had declared that the monster was a vector (a “host”) for a new virus. This was their justification for quarantining everything and spraying disinfectant everywhere. This was some kind of comment about government, though I’m still a little puzzled by it. Maybe you have to be Korean. Still, it was agreeably sinister.

I think Gattaca ended up being my favorite of the Marathon. Very interesting movie. Very talented people, too; Ethan Hawke looked a lot like Tom Cruise, but was able to act better. Somehow, I don’t know how he did it, but he was always under tension. And I mean, that’s what his character was. He made it work. But not just Ethan Hawke, everyone brought their best game; Jude Law, Uma Thurman, Alan Arkin, Loren Dean…really amazing. And the cinematography was quite beautiful, very stylized with lots of soft, warm colors and curves. The tagline that appeared on posters is “There is no gene for the human spirit”, and that sort of sums up the plot; I think the point they were trying to make is that what you do with your life is much more important than what you start with.

A few things I particularly noticed…First, the “home” featured a spiral staircase (a helix, yep). Second, you can go on space flights in suits. Third, there was one bit where the cinematography fell short…A scene where two brothers swim at night. See, they look very similar, since they’re brothers. But because they’re similar, it’s very hard to tell them apart. You don’t really know what happened in that scene. Well, I think I know, but I could be wrong. Oh, and fourth; Tony Shalhoub had a small role, almost a cameo, as a rather shady character. He didn’t seem quite up to his usual standard, though, and I’m not sure why…

Now, my father and uncle are both fans of Heinlein, so they had been commiserating about how bad Starship Troopers was. (They said it was the best Heinlein movie–“The best of a bad lot”, quite consciously damning with faint praise.) I, however, hadn’t read it, so I went into the movie without any preconceptions.

There were maybe three plot threads in the movie. First, most basic, we follow the character of Johnny Rico as he goes from a pointless jock to a military officer. The actor mostly pulled it off, though I think he didn’t quite have enough gravitas to be a lieutenant at the end. Oh well. We follow his trials and tribulations, near soap-opera romances, dealing with people dying, your basic bildingsroman stuff.

At the beginning, however, and sort of as an underlying theme for a while, is the concept of “citizenship”. In this world, one only becomes a citizen after serving at least two years in the military. Thus, you can only vote if you’ve defended the Federation. It was argued for quite coherently and consistently within the film, which is interesting. This theme of patriotism was explored, but also somewhat subverted with the sinister little propaganda newscasts put into the film at various points.

The last “facet” of the film was a fictional war movie. This was pretty good, but you could see the tropes being checked off. Not to mention that I don’t actually LIKE war movies. I mean, how many times do you have to watch mercy-killings before you get enough? Anyway, the one thing that bothered me about this bit was the lack of tactics. Most of the fighting was against “arachnids”; bugs that walked over the land, couldn’t fly, were resistant (though not immune) to gunfire and could spear their claws right through body armor. So, the Federation fights them by sending infantry in with body armor and machine guns. What’s wrong with this picture? Anyway, it was kind of entertaining, but ultimately I would have given it a pass.

After that I went to crash with my uncle, eventually making my way back to NYC on Fung Wah Monday morning. Then I wandered around and did a bit of shopping (the new Kinokuniya Books store is awesome!). And finally I made it home Monday and eventually slept for quite a long time.

End of line.

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