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Yes, Pacific Rim is a loud popcorn movie best viewed with your brain operating at half capacity, just enjoying the show without asking any questions. And that’s exactly what makes it fun. This may shock film snobs and critics who review Oscar bait, but not every movie in theaters needs to be an epic character drama that explores the fundamental issues with existence and the human condition, or brutally cataloging a bloody genocide while repeatedly beating its viewers over the head with heavy-handed questions about morals, ethics, free will, and what lurks within us all. At the same time though, big budget Hollywood spectacles with thin plots are usually outsourced to Michael Bay, or directors who emulate his style, who latch on to formulas that even the writers of Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller movies would find too flimsy and groan-inducing, then proceed to viciously drill them into your eyes to a soundtrack of explosions. Pacific Rim was thankfully made by Guillermo del Toro and easily avoids this trap by being a simple and very straightforward little tribute to giant robot vs. giant monster anime many twenty-somethings watched as kids.

But that said, there’s something just not right about humanoid robots brawling with giant beasts sent from another world through an undersea portal called The Breach. Jaegers might deliver a knockout punch to a 30 story Kaiju or pound one over the head with a container ship to give the monster a hell of a concussion, but the mechanics just don’t quite work. Kaijus are fleshy, which means they’re more flexible and heal minor cuts and scrapes quickly. By comparison, a Jaeger would be made of comparatively brittle metal alloys and have to be refurbished after every fight, making it extremely expensive and labor-intensive to operate. When the Kaijus appear every six months or so as they did at the beginning of the war, the cost can be managed. But as the giant brutes keep getting bigger and bigger, and start appearing as often as once a week, resources are quickly going to start running dry, so building ever more Jaegers would quickly become very difficult. No wonder that the bureaucrats who run the world in Pacific Rim want to shut down this once promising program for a wall to keep the Kaijus out. They can’t afford it anymore.

Of course one also wonders how they got the Jaegers to be bipedal at such a scale. Walking on two legs is very computationally expensive for a machine that’s as big as a high rise, and even a small bump in the road could send these robots falling, and falling badly. Not only that, but they give the Kaijus excellent points of attack: the ankles and the knees. To truly make their punches count, the Jaeger pilots have to get their robots to behave just like a human fighter and put the core and hips into the blow. Punching in a basic one-two sequence, the weight would swing from leg to leg, so a counter-attack from a Kaiju aimed at the thigh or the side of the knee could send a million tons of robot down hard with its head lined up for a finishing blow from above. You can see the same idea in mixed martial art disciplines which use stomps and side-knees in a clinch to shift an opponent’s weight so you can topple him and get full mount for a well placed elbow, or a swift hammer fist to the side of the head. Jaegers would simply not be flexible enough to survive this sort of assault in the real world. Many much less brittle and more coordinated humans aren’t without at least a little training or a whole lot of mass to counteract the impacts.

For better fight mechanics, I would have designed Jaegers to look more like sumo wrestlers. An extremely wide base either on tracks or hovering with the aid of nuclear powered jet engines, no legs, and stuffed with ranged weaponry to soften up the Kaiju as it charges. Large, thick, heavy arms with huge claws would pummel the monsters at close range and its barrel-like core would spin naturally, so tipping it over or even getting it off-balance would be a Herculean task, even for the fat Category 4 Kaiju which attacks Hong Kong in the movie’s second act. Its hull could be made of something flexible like kevlar to make it tougher for a Kaiju to bite through and diffuse a good deal of the force that would be generated by a direct hit. One could even imagine it pulling off a complicated sequence just by rotating around its axis. For example, it could hit a Kaiju with an enormous left hook starting about 30 degrees left off center, keep spinning until it can follow the punch with a right elbow at between 60 and 120 degrees right off center, and returning back with a left hammer fist and a right hook, using the hits on the Kaiju to redirect its momentum.

And while we’re redesigning the Jaegers, we should ask why they can’t be piloted remotely. We can control drones halfway across the world in real time and all of the infrastructure to pull off a similar feat with a giant robot seems to be in place in the film. To minimize lag, the pilots should be in the base from which their Jaegers would be launched, but they wouldn’t have to be in their robot. Their brain-machine interfaces with their co-pilots and with their machine are going to be implemented as an abstraction over the kernel of the Jaeger’s operating system anyway so the pilots could fight, lose, and be ready to fight again as soon as a new machine is ready to go. It’s actually kind of a no-brainer that allows them to switch tactics, pushing the Jaegers further and taking risks that could kill them if they were in the actual robot but win the day in the end. There would be a huge psychological boost from seeing a Kaiju on a big screen in a bunker instead of up close and personal, its fangs tearing through the cockpit and rattling the robot around. Yes, it’s not as heroic or dangerous, but much more militarily effective and politically beneficial.

But then again, all of this is based on the idea that Jaegers make for the best front-line defense when a Kaiju attacks. That’s not necessarily true. We know they can be killed by nukes, but the proposition of turning the world’s most populated coastlines into radioactive deserts is a tough sell and actually doing that will kill food production and give the Kaijus a beachhead from which they can mount assaults further and further inland. However, launching a very large kinetic kill vehicle from orbit, basically a huge spike dropped from a satellite, could hit a Kaiju with roughly the same yield as a 300 kiloton nuclear warhead without all the radiation. Currenly we can’t build and launch wepaons like this because they violate the Outer Space Treaty, but when there’s an angry horde of aliens that can flatten a city block with each step rampaging on Earth and all of the nations unite in building and deploying Jaegers, I’m sure exceptions could be made and the current space faring powers can launch a system of satellites ready to drive a super-heated alloy slug into a Kaiju at hypersonic speeds at a moment’s notice. Should that somehow fail and some time needs to be bought for another shot, Jaegers can coral the beast into the kill zone.

This is how you would fight a Kaiju in the real world. Orbiting KKV launchers that can fire off an exceptionally engineered slug at the planet below at a moment’s notice, drone bomber swarms, and giant mobile weapon platforms known as Jaegers, remotely piloted as a last line of defense against the nightmarish beasts. Pacific Rim’s spectacle is great for a live action anime movie, a solid tribute to the genre, and it creates tension by putting the main characters in real danger in the maws of the Kaiju, but if we were to translate any of it to the real world, it would be a militarily unsustainable strategy with little chance of actually working. The only worse strategy would be a giant wall to keep the monsters out, i.e. the Wall of Life being built in the movie, but it seems like the competent commanders in the Pacific Rim universe were all on leave throughout the war and this is why the world has been stuck with worse and worse ideas for fighting the alien titans. But hey, how mad can you be at a movie’s plot holes if it lets you mentally design giant robots and a swarm of global space-based defenses to fight aliens the size of an office block?

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enterprise vs. dreadnought

A good swath of the geek part of the internet is lit up with fury about Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s manifested on the familiar nerd hubs like Wired, Ars, and io9, especially io9, which is downright incandescent with rage about the movie’s choice of villain. Numerous calls have been made for the heads of J.J. Abrams and his crew on platters, to soothe the angry Gods of Trek, while fans of the franchise are busy offering ideas for what would’ve made the movie better, which, surprise surprise, involve following the canon of the original series and the spin-offs. But this was a given when you consider the source material and the fan base. You can’t reboot a franchise simply by continuing the story arcs already decades in the making, you can’t make an exciting movie that focuses on tedious exopolitical negotiations in the neutral zone, and you will ruffle some feathers when you try to boldly go (or go at all) where the franchise has never gone before.

For example, one of the big complaints about Abrams’ vision of Star Trek is the militarization of the Federation’s fleet. But here’s the thing. It’s a fleet of spaceships that might face adversarial life forms (like the Romulans and Klingons), the ships are armed with lasers and missiles, and a botched first encounter can turn a peaceful delegation of explorers into a military incursion. So it’s kind of hard to blame Abrams for seeing the potential of the Federation to wage war, and in dire circumstances, use ships that were once meant to explore the galaxy for force projection, as the Enterprise is used in Into Darkness. And of course there’s the commercial consideration. A sci-fi movie sells best when there’s war involved because that makes a good popcorn flick that’s going to attract big crowds. People generally struggle with peaceful meditations on life from all those little green men, and often don’t try to apply it back to the world they inhabit.

Yes, I know, Star Trek was supposed to rise above these commercial considerations but today, sci-fi is a hard sell. For studios, it’s either popcorn munching military science fiction or another rom-com because they’re a business and movies are expensive to make, especially those which require lots and lots of special effects. If you’re a die-hard Trekkie, you’re going to have to make some concessions to people who live outside your bubble and really couldn’t care about all the intricate stories to which you dedicated countless hours. Who knows, they might like the idea so much, they go back and rediscover what you saw in the source material. But if you’re going for mass audiences, something has to give and compromises have to be made. And here is where we run into the biggest complaint of them all, that Abrams was recycling deep material from the original rather than creating something completely new out of it. Unfortunately, this is an area in which every reboot director is facing a lose-lose proposition by the nature of the project.

Had Into Darkness essentially been an updated Wrath of Khan, Abrams would’ve been pilloried for simply giving the classic a coat of fresh paint, just like io9 was savaging him for using classic material and inverting it, with the writer sounding nearly apoplectic with fan rage. If the movie’s plot resembled nothing ever seen or done on Star Trek, the Trekkies would’ve been infuriated that they got their Star Trek without anything that made it like Star Trek, asking why Abrams did not make and references to the original and just borrowed the names, ships, and logos to make something completely different under the same brand name. That’s the nature of a reboot. You won’t be able to please the fans either way unless you simply continue where the last episode of their franchise left off without missing a beat, and that sort of defeats the whole idea of a reboot in the first place. Into Darkness was a fun movie, it had its moments, and it was technically very, very well executed for what it was supposed to be. And at least it has people interested in sci-fi, which is more than we could say for many past and upcoming sci-fi flicks…

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skyfall

When a Bond movie comes out, you pretty much have to go see it. I mean come on, it’s a Bond movie, right? In the latest installment, 007 is taking on a computer hacker of sorts and shows us just how little research screenwriters tend to do about technology. While Bond’s brash and bold style of field work is somewhat passable with a little suspension of disbelief from the audience in the grand scheme of things — do we really need to go into detail why not staying low and using some very carefully crafted aliases and passports is a bad idea in spy craft? — the key crimes of the film’s villain, Agent Silva, sound as if the writer skimmed a few Wikipedia pages, pulled out a few impressive sounding buzzwords, and randomly jammed them into the film. And the resulting mix of buzzword salad and technobabble drew me out of the story like an icy slap to the face.

Look, I know, I know, it’s just a movie and a Bond movie at that, and so I’m willing to believe that an agent who needs to shovel painkillers and pour scotch down his gullet to function could still beat the living crap out of an international assassin on a very high level floor of a new Shanghai skyscraper. I’m also willing to give Bond the 600 foot fall that should’ve shattered his body into a million pieces. But when M is telling her assistant to “strip the headers” to pinpoint the source of a hack, my inner professional geek rebels, mostly because the headers is there the data she’d want can be found since it carries the request IP. She basically asked one of the top intelligence agencies in the world to do the equivalent of taking a letter out of its addressed envelope, throw that envelope away, and use the letter to figure out from where the envelope came. Ugh.

And when the tech jargon isn’t just plain wrong, it’s meaningless. When Bond is told that a hard drive containing the name of every NATO agent embedded in terrorist groups is “encrypted with an asymmetric encryption” we’re supposed to get the idea that it’s really tough to crack because the encryption is asymmetric. Classified data is generally encrypted using a Triple AES cipher, an updated block cipher first created in 1998 in a competition to create a brand new encryption standard, and as a block cipher, it’s strength is measured by key size. The bigger the key size, the harder it is to decrypt. So if MI6 wanted to explain to Bond how dire the situation is while still sounding computer literate, they would fret that Silva cracked say, a 2,048 bit key. That’s a very badass thing to do and would mean that Silva can summon NSA-scale resources, and well in line with some very basic information security jargon you can see on most tech blogs.

Finally we have an egregious scene in which Q tried to decrypt Silva’s hard drive contents. If we were to believe Q, only six people in the world could write polymorphic code and that using code obfuscators makes things ridiculously difficult to decrypt. There are exactly two problems with all that. One: polymorphic code in malware is so common that anti-virus companies have a special algorithm to detect it, an algorithm you can easily find online since it’s been published sometime in the late 1990s. Two: obfuscated code is generally quickly deobfuscated because for every obfuscator there is a deobfuscator out there. By the time a plain text password appeared in what was otherwise a wall of hex — which is what you would see if you tried to reverse engineer code you found suspicious — so blatantly obviously that even the computer illiterate Bond noticed it, I was slumped in my seat, sobbing softly into my sleeve. What in the hell was that?

Again, I know it’s just a movie, but at the same time, just consider that a few days of rudimentary research could’ve created a much better picture of real cyber threats facing world governments and might have even given the writers new plots for Bond movies. Silva mentioned destabilizing entire countries by manipulating stock markets. You could totally do that! I could even explain a hypothetical step by step process of how to make that happen with a mix of social engineering, high frequency trading algorithms, and customized hacking tools while you hobnob with the elite traders of the world’s foremost financial hubs. (Screenwriters in search of new ideas, you know how to reach me, just click the About page…) And that’s certainly a worthy task for Bond to dive into, isn’t it? Think of how much press a properly researched and computer literate movie about hacking and espionage could generate. Seriously Hollywood, stop being lazy about technology and do your homework. You’ll get fun plots and save the geeks in the audience a lot of angst…

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After mentioning Tron Legacy in a follow-up to a post about digital transhumanism, then seeing the film and writing down a few thoughts about its recurring themes, I thought I’d be pretty much done with the topic. It’s not exactly a controversial work, and there’s really not much there beyond the visual effects which try to make the ordinarily tedious process of writing code seem somehow exotic and exciting. But then I came across an odd post from Sean Carroll over at Cosmic Variance, saying that there was no real science in Tron, for which he was a science consultant, as he simultaneously tried to pat himself and his fellow science consultants on the back for convincing the director to put in unmentioned tanks of raw material used to reassemble humans emerging back from The Grid into the real world somewhere almost off camera for two frames that may have made it into the final cut. And after emphasizing this scientific victory, he goes on to say that just a tiny little bit of scientific content can add a lot of depth and believability to films, and Tron is a recent example of just that.

Let me get this straight. We’re talking about a movie in which a programmer is trapped in a computer by an AI with an authoritarian streak after discovering self-manifesting super-programs, ages by several decades in a safe-house despite inhabiting a purely digital realm where nothing needs to age, and is then joined by a son who was vaporized into the same computer with a laser. Pardon me but where exactly is the science in any of this Hollywood fantasy of how the world inside computers should look like to an audience which is just barely familiar with the concept of computing? Oh, right. If we strain really, really hard, we might see some unmarked tanks which we’re assured contain the oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous, hydrogen, and metals needed to bring a human back from a virtual world and re-assemble him one subatomic particle at a time. That’s the science of the Tron universe and a step towards seeing more and more scientifically accurate movies? Sean, really? Come on, from any scientific or engineering standpoint, the whole movie is just a fantasy where little people inside microchips are called programs and somehow, objects ordinarily requiring terabytes of memory to run can fill an entire virtual city in an arcade from the 1980s. But hey, we got those tanks, right?

And here’s another thing. Sean is a physicist, and he participated in the science consulting through a project that’s rather heavy on experts in physics and biology. Now, were Tron’s creators to ask someone with even a basic background in computer science, they would’ve learned that for The Grid to work, it would’ve had to exist on a server the size of the Encom tower and consume slightly more electricity than a small developing country to allow astronomical amounts of code to compile and run non-stop for decades at a time. They also would’ve found out that programs can’t just randomly manifest themselves unless you specifically experiment with your code to tease out some sort of behaviors you may not anticipate, behaviors that usually only happen because you left so much room in your code’s rules for the program to do something seemingly bizarre under a certain set of conditions. Finally, they’d have to come up with an explanation for how at a time when supercomputers were about a million times slower than they are today, someone could create an architecture only possible for the kinds of machines which are still just rough sketches on drawing boards. It’s not the design that wouldn’t work here, but the fact that in the 1980s, the computers weren’t fast enough to execute Tron-level instructions, and come to think of it, even today’s best computing devices simply aren’t up to par.

I could raise a few other issues but I don’t want to give away the ending and I think you get the point. There’s a dearth of any scientific merit to the movie and the tanks Sean mentions were so memorable, that after seeing the movie, I had no idea they were even there until I read his post on the matter. But you know what, that’s ok. I can live with a scientifically and technologically inaccurate movie. There’s certainly value in scientific advice to filmmakers when their goal is to be as accurate as possible and make a realistic and believable movie. When it comes to movies like Tron, though, the goal is to entertain, not educate or stay plausible, and we should let them just be entertaining rather than trying to squeeze in some hard science or make it seem as if the director heeded his scientific advisers when he didn’t really do anything noticeable. We shouldn’t be relying on movies to teach us about science or desperately try to latch something scientific onto a movie with good buzz just for a shot at getting an audience that may sort of be interested in seeing a few more clips from the movie between the scientist droning on about something that has to do with a scene they heard was really cool…

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Usually, it’s rare for me to catch a movie on its opening weekend, but in the case of Tron Legacy, I had to make an exception. I mean come on, I’m a programmer by day and a computer science grad student by night, so it’s kind of a job requirement for me to see it. Overall, the flick came pretty close to what I was expecting of it, so it didn’t exactly blow me away. The ambient electronica of Daft Punk was a great touch and the visual effects are for the most part very well done, though a few of the 3D shots look rushed and flat. But that aside, I saw a pair of consistent themes being woven through the plot, themes that are actually quite often discussed in the tech world and branch out into transhumanist ventures and the open source community. The first is the idea that a piece of software shouldn’t be simply packaged and sold, but released to the users complete with the source code so they can use and modify the program any way they want. The second revolved around a desire to use a seemingly new and profound insight gained when working with new technology to change the world and the designers’ starry eyed and far-reaching ideas about remaking the entire globe as they see fit.

Let’s start with the first idea, the thought process behind open source software. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of really good open source programs out there and a number of them are used in developing brand new software packages, including projects that help manage large and complex chunks of code. However, when you spend a lot of time and money creating an operating system or a program designed to handle complex or industry specific tasks, you’re going to want to get paid for it, and you’re probably not going to want to let any of your competitors see how you build your software. Ideally, if you’ve come up with some terrific piece of code or a clever algorithm to handle a sophisticated task, others should be able to see it, learn from it, then use it for their software, creating new design patterns and improving the overall quality of software out there. In the real world, a lot of companies will simply steal the code you’ve slaved over for months, if not years, and take away your new selling point. It’s one thing when you’re freely volunteering to contribute to open-source projects and expect nothing in return, but when you’re being paid to write code, it’s not in your best interests to reveal it. And besides, if you were to give away your source code, how many users will spend the time and effort to tweak a few million lines of code to write custom operating systems and programs? So you end up releasing virtually everything not only to those who want to and are qualified to help you, but to those who either don’t care about your work or just want to steal it to fill in gaps in their product or improve it’s performance.

The second issue is a little more abstract and harder to address. We all hear about how technology is either changing the world or about to change it, especially from Silicon Valley CEOs, so we’re pretty used to being constantly promised the Next Big Thing. Trouble is that very few technologies really do change everything. I’ve constantly read about how much Facebook is changing the world, even though it wasn’t the first social media and networking site, it was built on existing technology stacks, and it wasn’t always the most popular. It’s just really big and famous right now, as well as ridiculously overvalued, so we see all this praise lavished on it by tech reporters. But what about the web itself? It took the internet and turned it into a usable network for virtually everything from commerce, to education, to adult entertainment. Without the web, we could argue that most of the modern, wired, intertwined world would be very different. Now that’s a world changing invention. If we took away Facebook, there would be another site doing exactly what it does and the Web 2.0 would remain similar to what we have now because it’s a business model rather than any particular technology. And on the flip side here, history is full of technologies that users just couldn’t understand at the time of their invention and so they simply passed on it, like ancient steam engines. Changing the world is a difficult business and how a certain technology affects global affairs only becomes apparent with time and user acceptance.

Believe it or not, there’s a thread that ties together the open-source movement which see software companies as too slow for the world of high tech and slowing innovation by guarding their source code, and a yearning to change the world with some new piece of technology. That thread is idealism that tries to discard the flaws of the real world and focus on a bigger mission, a mission to improve, enhance, and advance without having to deal with day to day politics and underhanded competitors, and forgetting about users who really will not care how clean or maintainable the code behind their applications really is and are just interested in the programs’ end results. It’s too bad that good intentions and idealistic zeal usually only go so far…

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Last month, I wrote about the challenges of building one transhumanist vision of the future; digital worlds in which humans exist as data, sort of like The Matrix but leaving the physical body behind in the process. Never mind the countless biological challenges and biological limits involved for now, just living in a world that you know isn’t real could cause constant confusion and potentially a few neurotic snaps here and there. But there is another way to look at being digitized that may be fun to consider, especially because it gives me an excuse to post the trailer for the upcoming Tron sequel, which looks very, very visually impressive to say the least…

Now, just for the sake of entertainment, let’s say that you could be digitized into a virtual world in which you will live and behave like a program. There will be rules governing what you can and cannot do, but overall, you do have choices and make your own decisions. And that would be very different from living in a simulation or just a virtual world to which you would have to transfer your mind. Instead of injecting yourself as a stream of code representing a mind, you would effectively be injecting all of you, albeit in digital form, into a new reality which you’d then have to physically inhabit. You might even enjoy it because as a program, you wouldn’t age and you might even be able to alter your appearance, not as an avatar, but as an actual, digital you. However, you’d still inhabit a virtual world and the big question is whether you’ want to stay there until the lights finally go out on all the servers. This world would be more real to you than a pseudo Second Life, but it won’t be Reality 2.0.

Of course the truth of the matter is that simply breaking down the atoms in your body to somehow turn virtually every one of them into a stream of electrons which flows at different voltages, compile them into a parse tree, and then a vast library of assembly code objects, link them together, then load them into an operating system as code to be injected into a running executable file to have a digital you accurately recompiled would require more than just astonishing advances in science. It would require intimate knowledge of very, very extensively detailed frameworks of consciousness and self-awareness, and magical leaps in computing and biology for something like this to even be remotely conceivable in the real world. In other words, the odds of real humans ever being digitized Tron style are beyond infinitesimal to zero, but it’s fun to think about the what-if…

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big bang theory

There are generally two Hollywood-approved ways to show people who are actually good at math and science in movies and TV shows. The first is to make them into reclusive, brilliant, comic book super-villains hell bent on dominating the world that misunderstands them. The second is to show them as socially inept, lanky, and completely sexually inexperienced dweebs whose only solace is their experiments with robots, beakers, and mathematical derivations. A normal, well-adjusted, productive member of society that just so happens to have a knack for the sciences is such a rarity in the entertainment realm, I find myself wondering whether the any of the writers employed by Hollywood studios ever had any exposure to a world beyond that of the middle school gym locker room, or the typical high school where the social hierarchy of nerds and jocks was preserved at all costs, lest the football team’s fragile egos and NFL ambitions be overshadowed by the school’s academics.

I still remember that when I graduated from high school, almost half the principal’s speech was focused on a good year for the school’s football team, despite the fact that her institution was also known for its competitive academic environment. The math, sciences, and the arts all received just a brief mention from administrators because, well, who cares about anything other than football and a review of the school’s policies? And far too many screenwriters follow the same script as my high school principal, seemingly unable to imagine that the contributions of academically strong individuals need to be acknowledged, or even represented as anything other than comic relief. It’s not just sitcoms I have in mind here, although The Big Bang Theory is probably one of the biggest offenders in this category. It’s true that in a sitcom, everybody is reduced to a stereotype and the executives in charge of the project seem to think that the audience is so mentally deficient, it needs to be told when to laugh with an auditory cue. Here’s a hint. If you need to tell an audience when you deliver a punchline, your joke probably isn’t funny in the first place. If it was, they’d be able to figure it out.

But even serious shows don’t dare to violate the nerds-as-comic-relief protocol. Bones, for example, turns its brilliant female scientist into a running gag, the goofy, socially awkward sidekick of the suave FBI investigator who fulfills the stereotypical requirement that street smarts are always supposed to trump book smarts since in the Hollywood universe, you’re not allowed to have both. In fact, almost half the CSI experts on the show are explicitly stated to have some form of autism. Holy crap! Since when are you supposed to be autistic to have a good grasp on computers, chemistry, physics, or math? And the episode of Bones involving the murder of an accomplished scientist? Don’t even get me started. Hands down, one of the worst portrayals of scientists in a research institution ever. I’ve never met a single scientist or researcher who acts anything like you see on TV, and I’m in the computer science program, supposedly the last refuge of all greasy, awkward nerds who could never deal with other human beings and watch way too much anime and porn (much of which is supposed to be anime porn). And yet, if you were to observe a typical comp sci class, you’d see primarily well adjusted and normal people who just happen to understand math and computers.

Amazingly, as far as Hollywood writers may be concerned, nerds are normal people who use their interests in the academic realm to make money, like to hang out with their friends, and yes, even manage to have sex with other, real, live human beings. And meanwhile, as high schools salute the jocks and Hollywood insists that a proper scientist must suffer from Asperger’s or have the social graces of a mediocre alien anthropologist who came to this planet on his first assignment, we keep wondering why we have shortages of STEM grads. Who would’ve thought that portraying math, engineering and science as fields only the socially inept, or perpetually dateless, acne-ridden dorks would ever pursue could possibly discourage people from applying themselves in these disciplines? I mean, come on. Is more than that one rare, fleeting portrayal of a scientist as a socially adept and normally functioning human being on TV or in the movies too much to ask?

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Once upon a time there was a little movie about a fictional town somewhere in New Mexico overrun by an old and bizarre subterranean species with an insatiable appetite and the ability to sneak up on its victims where they least expected it: right under the solid ground on which they stood. That movie was called Tremors, and its simple Sci-Fi Channel B-movie greatness managed to make it somewhat popular. And apparently, it was popular enough to find a fan at the University of Applied Sciences in Augsburg, Germany, who decided to use them as the topic of his undergraduate thesis: an informative illustrated short about dangerous cryptids and horror movie beasts called Monstrous Wildlife. Here’s what we might refer to as the show’s pilot episode…

You know, I have to say that as far as low budget horror movie monsters go, Graboids are actually one of the few well thought ones. That’s what made Tremors somewhat enjoyable, even though it suffered from the very typical cheesy one-liners and stilted acting afflicting many movies like it. With a somewhat realistic monster, acting in a consistent, believable way, you didn’t have to suffer through the cognitive dissonance you get with today’s slew of Sci-Fi Channel…err… excuse me, I mean SyFy Channel originals, which seem to be driven by the idea that people separate reality from fantasy so well, neither the writers or the filmmakers need to bother with a single shred of believability in the final product. I mean, come on. Sharktopus? Mansquito? Ice Spiders and Nazi Gargoyles? It’s as if today’s makers of pulp horror and sci-fi films just put a few old clich├ęs in some horrible, idea-mangling blender, turn it to liquefy and let the resulting goop set into a script.

I’m really not a cinema snob, not in the least. In fact, I love good low budget flicks for their entertainment value, and their outlandish ideas. But seriously, B-movie makers, meet me halfway here. Don’t just throw a random monster at me and expect me to get all excited, especially when it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves from the visual effects artists. We’re watching the movie for the scary creatures and sinister aliens, not the wooden actors with cardboard thin characters given awkward lines to somehow inflate into actual, relatable humans with real emotions. Make those extraterrestrial baddies, biological abominations, and primeval terrors shine from the screen in all their CGI glory, make them believable, and make them scary. After all, a good monster can be the start or a cult hit, and a subsequent franchise based on the aforementioned cult hit…

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Way back when this blog was just getting started, I decided to include an odd and neat little video I once found making the rounds on the web in a post on Jim Marrs’ latest conspiracy potboiler. That video was the quick teaser for an alt history film Iron Sky, currently being produced by Finish studios Energia and Blind Spot, which are doing the newest thing in filmmaking and soliciting money and ideas from their potential audience rather than getting a loan from a bank using their script as collateral. As with all ambitious productions, the progress seems slow, but a new trailer recently hit the web, and this one is supposed to include actual film footage…

If you have any interest in conspiracy theories, you can probably spot how well this movie seems to hit on the new incarnation of the Nazi UFO theory; the idea that what we know as UFOs are actually tests of military and experimental vehicles based on the designs of Nazi engineers. Parts of this theory aren’t very far fetched if we consider the accomplishments of Project Paperclip and who was behind many of the rocket designs that took humans to the Moon. However, it’s the theorists’ emphasis on the nearly magical technologies Nazi scientists were supposedly creating in the hidden laboratories in the Swiss Alps as retold by writer Nick Cook that seem to be the foundation of Iron Sky’s ideas of a base on the dark side of the Moon created by Nazis fleeing the fall of their empire at the hands of the Allied forces in 1945 and after some 73 years on the Moon, they’re coming back to Earth in the kind of spaceships that the Nazi bell theorists think were being perfected at the time of the Third Reich’s fall, and aiming for a rematch of World War 2 on a planet that’s starting to forget them.

Though in reality, it’s unlikely that nearly three quarters of a century on the Moon would do any wonders for the soldiers’ health, and new generations would have a lot of trouble handling 1G, even with a lot of training, and the invading army would be rather ineffective back on Earth. But then again, this is just a movie so we can just suspend our disbelief. Besides the project is being pitched as a comedy so this could even be used for a gag at some point. Still, there’s a steep hill to climb for this alt history flick. Seeing the historical lunar landing with armed, saluting Nazis in front of an unfolding red and black swastika is rather surreal, and the whole notion of a culture that once embodied just about every evil and hateful trait of humanity and held sway over the world’s affairs coming back for a rematch of a battle they lost almost three quarters of a century prior seems difficult to package as a comedy. There are still those who remember the monstrous cruelty unleashed on the world by Adolf Hitler, his friends, and their minions, hence, it seems difficult to see an invasion of flying saucers piloted by new generations of Nazis as somehow comedic without being reduced to slapstick.

Then again, this is only my personal opinion and judging by the end of the teasers, Energia intends to put the fictional space Nazis on the receiving end of subtle jokes, or showing their mindless devotion to the pseudo- scientific and genocidal ideology which fueled a world war. So enjoy the second trailer with its indie industrial soundtrack by Laibach, take a look at the movie site, and see if you might want to get involved with Iron Sky as a small donor to help the studio bring this odd and potentially provocative project to fruition…

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After one of the biggest sci-fi blockbusters ever endured constant jokes and won few awards on Oscar night, it seems that quite a few blogs and entertainment industry articles are abuzz with one question. Is the Academy avoiding the science fiction genre, imagining sci-fi movies as little more than trivial popcorn flicks devoid of all important or political themes? For example, if someone were to re-imagine Heinlein’s tale of idealistic rebels becoming the very kind of authoritarian rulers they despised, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, would it be a less worthy movie than a historical biopic or an adaptation of another famous book? Does a film set in the future or using laser canons instead of guns immediately designate it as B-level pulp unworthy of critical attention?

Here’s the thing. I’m not saying that Avatar should’ve won an award for Best Picture since, as was said before, the story was an exercise in contrasts, pitting amazing visual effects against a painfully simplistic parable that relentlessly pounded every viewer over the head with an environmental message containing all the depth of a Captain Planet rerun. Sure, some cool transhumanist ideas were left in the final product because there was another chance to stuff something about unity with nature, but it was definitely not a serious contender for the title. It wasn’t the only science fiction movie however, and the far more dramatic and politically charged District 9 was also on the docket. It was thought provoking, inspired by real and brutal events, and had an ending that spoke volumes in just a few minutes of screen time. But of course, it couldn’t win against another politically inspired film based on real and very current events.

Giant shrimp eating cat food in decaying slums vs. bomb squads in Iraq? That’s an easy one for the Academy. The aliens and their shantytown were a metaphor? Yeah, whatever. Nerds. And that’s the problem. It’s hard to believe that in over 80 years of the Oscars being awarded, not a single science fiction movie has ever won an award for Best Picture. Even a fantasy movie managed to barge its way into this category after hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the Lord of the Rings Trilogy to the delight of fantasy lovers across the world. Are science fiction tales really that sub-par compared to war movies and drama? Considering how the votes have been going so far, I would think it’s safe for any filmmaker who decides to explore themes that aren’t on the Academy’s approved list of award worthy genres and looks into the future for an allegory of today, to abandon hope of ever being rewarded for the effort, no matter how well the movie turns out.

[ illustration by Tomasz Miazga, some images may be a tad NSFW ]

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