Prometheus review

On Tuesday, 12 June 2012, I met fellow role-player Josh C. for dinner at Bombay Mahal on Moody Street in Waltham, Massachusetts. We then joined Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. at the Landmark Embassy Cinema for Prometheus. We enjoyed Ridley Scott’s prequel to the Alien franchise, despite the movie’s flaws.

The Prometheus
The Prometheus

Like its predecessors, Prometheus follows a ragtag group of humans on an interstellar vessel as they encounter murderous, parasitic aliens, or xenomorphs. (That’s shouldn’t come as a “spoiler” to anyone after 1979.) This time, Scott adds ruminations on the origins of humanity, religion, and more explicit parental conflict.

Prometheus is one of the most polished science fiction movies of the past few years, with believable late-21st century hardware and vehicles, majestic landscapes, and aliens and environments still inspired by H.R. Giger’s designs. Matte paintings, computer-generated images, practical props and miniatures, and costumes flowed (or, in some cases, oozed or slithered) seamlessly.

The casting and acting of Prometheus is also up to the standard set by the early entries in this series. Noomi Rapace (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) is archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw, who follows ancient images to a distant and dangerous world. Bloodied and running around in her underwear in some scenes, she’s idealistic and tough much like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley.

Idris Elba (The Wire, Thor) is Janek, the no-nonsense captain of the Prometheus, and Charlize Theron (Aeon Flux, Snow White and the Huntsman) is the icy Meredith Vickers, leader of the ill-fated Weyland prospecting expedition.

Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds) gets many good scenes as ambiguous android David, following in the steps of Ian Holm and Lance Henrickson. Guy Pierce (The Time Machine) is nearly unrecognizable as Peter Weyland, aged co-founder of the Weyland megacorporation. None of the characters is as charismatic or sympathetic as Ripley.

Ridley Scott’s direction and the scale harken back to stately space opera epics like Dune, with a slow start and a symphonic soundtrack. The latter half of the movie is more of an action/horror flick, with some predictably stupid moves by members of Prometheus‘ crew, such as removing helmets before fully testing for toxins and biohazards.

Other than the aforementioned parental issues involving Shaw, David, and Vickers, the script and plot for Prometheus are serviceable but a bit predictable. The trailers for the movie gave away the result of some of the film’s battles. In the original Alien, a new type of body horror overwhelmed any need for suspension of disbelief, and in James Cameron’s Aliens, the Marines’ (futile) flight for survival kept viewers’ pulses racing. The second movie is my favorite.

The draw of later Alien movies, including crossovers with Predator, was to see which characters would die first and how. Prometheus only flirts with this schadenfreude, trying to juggle the big ideas of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the action/horror DNA of its predecessors, and post-Avatar expectations for “eye candy.” Its ending (avoiding “spoilers“) is more a pyrrhic victory than a triumph of human/android will or just another massacre of/by xenomorphs.

I’d give Prometheus, which is rated R for violence and language, 7 out of 10, a solid B, or three stars out of five. Prometheus is more mature speculative fiction than the underrated John Carter, but I’m not sure if it was more entertaining or if I’d care to see it again. Fans of the Alien franchise will want to see Prometheus on the big screen, even if lowbrow CGI comedy Madagascar beat it at the box office.

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John Carter review — I want to go to Mars!

Unfairly maligned sword-and-planet flick
John Carter's a fun sword-and-planet flick

I recently screened Disney’s John Carter with Josh C. & Sara F. I saw the sword-and-planet movie again later with Janice, who was at a technical writing conference in Memphis this past week. She has also been busy with extra shifts as a volunteer at the Dedham animal shelter. All of us enjoyed the adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” stories.

The movie is framed with scenes of a young Burroughs, played by Spy Kids‘ Daryl Sabara, being summoned to the estate of his late uncle, a world traveler and former Confederate cavalryman. Taylor Kitsch, from Friday Night Lights and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, is the eponymous Capt. Carter, who finds himself mysteriously transported from late 1860s Arizona to an inhabited Mars.

On the desert world, Carter encounters tribes of Tharks, four-armed green men, led by the honorable Tars Tharkas (voice and motion capture of Willem Defoe). Despite his initial reluctance to become involved in another civil war, Carter is soon entangled in the conflict between the city-states of Zodanga and Helium, both of which are populated by humanlike “red” Martians.

After meeting the beautiful scientist and princess Deja Thoris (played by X-Men Origins‘ Lynn Collins), Carter decides to fight Sab Than (Dominic West), the Jeddak (chieftan) of Zodanga, and Thern mystic Matai Shang (Mark Strong). He’s aided by Sola (Samantha Morton), the compassionate daughter of Tars Tharkas, and doglike calot Woola.

If this plot seems familiar, it’s because Burroughs created the template for the “planetary romance,” which led to a century of space operas from Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and even Superman to Dune, Star Trek, and Star Wars to Stargate, Farscape, and Avatar. The lost but brave Earth man, the spunky princess and sidekicks, the honorable alien warriors, and the mystic duels have become clich├ęs, but John Carter shows us the vitality of their source.

The actors seem to be enjoying themselves with the interplanetary swashbuckling. The script by Michael Chabon takes itself seriously, but not too seriously, with humor similar to that found in the original Star Wars or another pulp revival, The Mummy. I’m currently reading Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for former co-worker Ken G.‘s “Escapists” book club.

Even in this age of computer-enhanced visuals, the Tharks’ facial expressions, the fleet-footed Woola and fierce white apes, the crawling city of Zodanga, and the steampunk airships were all impressively designed and rendered. The aliens interacted smoothly with the human actors. Despite the daunting amount of exposition required for such a movie, I thought that director Andrew Stanton, who also directed Pixar’s Wall-E, did a decent job of pacing.

The grand vistas include the rough-and-tumble frontier of the American west, the windswept deserts of Mars, the rain-soaked streets of New York, and soaring structures and ancient ruins of Barsoom. The soundtrack also evokes a lost age of adventure, although it’s not as memorable as the works of John Williams.

I’d give John Carter, which is rated PG-13 for violence, an 8.5 out of 10, four out of five stars, or an A-. Many critics have gleefully pointed out that Disney’s adaptation is somehow subject to the “curse of the Mars movies” and gotten less-than-stellar box office. However, I and other fans feel that many of their criticisms are unfair and typical of mainstream prejudice against genre entertainment.

By contrast, I’ve found video game flick Prince of Persia nearly unwatchable, and a preview image for the upcoming Lone Ranger also stirs doubts about its quality aside from easy parody. I’d love to role-play in a Barsoom game run by Tim M.B., Jason E.R., Brian W., or other scholars of early science fiction, perhaps using GURPS Mars, Savage Worlds, or FATE 3e Spirit of the Century and Starblazer Adventures. I recommend John Carter to anyone who appreciates old-fashioned sword-and-planet fun.

Death and humanism, Part 1: Star Trek

Cast of "The Undiscovered Country"
Star Trek original crew

I’m a member of the older half of “Generation X” — born 1965 to 1985 — so I’m a product of 1970s and 1980s popular culture. Trek Nation and The Muppets reminded me fondly of my childhood and demonstrated why the humanism of Gene Roddenberry and Jim Henson are much missed today.

The Science Channel has been showing documentaries including Ridley Scott’s Prophets of Science Fiction and Trek Nation (shades of the SciFi Channel’s Sciography) The former examines the lives and influence of various creators, while the latter is a more personal account of Rod Roddenberry’s attempts to learn more about his late father. Both show the great ideas and character flaws of their subjects.

Like Rod Roddenberry, I was only vaguely aware of the original Star Trek television series until I caught reruns in college. While I would have liked to have seen more discussion of Gene Roddenberry’s impact on space opera and genre entertainment in general, I understand his son’s desire to know his father better, despite their personality differences.

Gene Roddenberry had been a pilot in World War II and for Pan Am before becoming a police officer and eventually a TV writer and producer. His idealism helped propel Star Trek to cult popularity and inspired several real-world astronauts, despite network confusion and early cancellation. However, Roddenberry was also an emotionally absent father and a philanderer, and there was much of his swashbuckling attitude in Capt. James T. Kirk.

I knew much about the elder Roddenberry’s life and works, but Trek Nation provides interesting glimpses behind the scenes and beyond the usual interviews with actors and fans. For example, I didn’t know that acclaimed writer D.C. Fontana and Roddenberry parted on less-than-friendly terms. I still admire Gene Roddenberry’s desire to show a multiethnic future relatively free of strife and to provide parables about the Vietnam War, even if his personal life was far from a model one.

Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Ron Moore were understandably impatient with Gene Roddenberry’s relentless optimism, since good drama does require interpersonal conflict. However, I think that they and others took the franchise in a different and ultimately less successful direction. Most of the Star Trek movies have focused on villains rather than exploration or diplomacy, and the TV spin-offs after The Next Generation — Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise — increasingly watered down Roddenberry’s vision.

As space operas, Star Trek (and Star Wars, whose creator George Lucas gamely gives an interview to Rod Roddenberry in Trek Nation) juggle the desire for mythic archetypes with a rational, scientific universe as well as galaxy-scale, militaristic action with the power of close friendships. Author David Brin and other fans have taken sides, preferring one over the other, but I’ve enjoyed installments of both Star Trek and Star Wars for many years.

Interestingly, J.J. Abrams — whose recent cinematic reboot created an alternate continuity around the original 1960s characters with new actors — seems to understand the core of Trek better than many others at Paramount. I may not have liked Abrams’ overreliance on lens flares or his setting aside of the Next Generation‘s timeline, but he tells Rod Roddenberry in Trek Nation that even as a non-Trekkie, he understands why Kirk, Spock, McCoy and crew should reflect the aspirations of the audience and the hope for progress in uncertain times. Live long and prosper!

I definitely recommend Trek Nation to any Trekker or Trekkie, as well as to fans of speculative fiction and genre TV in general. Next up, I’ll look at the latest effort to restore another beloved franchise to the public consciousness — the Muppets!

“Vortex” Update 5b.21 — Duct tales

Interplanetary transport
Space truck

Fellow role-players, here are my notes for Session 5b.21 of the “Vortexspace opera campaign. Team 2 met on Monday, 3 October 2011, and is using FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer, Bulldogs, Diaspora, and Limitless Horizons.

In one future, humanity has begun to colonize the Sol system, but ecological degradation and internecine conflicts persist. Open and official First Contact with Galactic societies, themselves at war, threaten Terra’s very survival. Will heroes rise to the challenges?

A band of grifters and near-humans retrieved dangerous samples from a battlefield north of Karachi and the Ghanki undersea station. It stole starship engines from a lunar base and an orbital city and was involved in medical disasters in the Venusian colonies. After finding a dimensionally displaced derelict, the team made inquiries into its cargo amid religious turmoil on Titan….

>>FATE 3e “Vortex” Team 2 (5b), crew of the Appomattox:

-“Gabriel Adams” [Paul J.]-male North American Terran near-human with telepathy, courier and pilot

-“Hector Chavez” [Beruk A.]-male Latin American Terran human, “burned” operative and communications expert

-“ARTHERR” [Greg D.C.]-Advanced Resonance Theoretical Heuristic Exploration and Research Robot created by megacorp Vimeco

-“Jasmine” [Sara F.] female Martian Felinoid (Synth, “Uplifted” tiger), former professional pit fighter

-“Mr. Richmond Garrett” [Dave S.C./absent]-male Southern American Terran human, space snake-oil salesman and social climber

-“Dr. Dieter Klein” [Rich L./absent]-male European Terran human, semi-retired physician, altruist and thrill seeker

-“Nero Bartholomew” [Non-Player Character]-male Terran human, former owner of the “Fortune’s Fool,” ship’s cook

-“Averki ‘Deep Dish’ Dyashenko” [N.P.C.]-male reptilian Synth (genetically engineered humanoid), onetime Venusian miner

>>”15 to 18 October 2194 A.D./C.E. or 0 Terran Galactic Era:” The crew of the Appomattox delays its mysterious mission to bring Vatican artifacts to Epsilon Eridani. Instead, the group continues its investigation into the murder of fundamentalist preacher Hugh Doyle at Eclipse Station near Saturn.

Hector Chavez hacks into the space station‘s security to review surveillance recordings. The onetime spy traces the movements of smuggler Adrian Valentin, who bought a generator from the Mukhtadi brothers that could have been used to kill Doyle.

Valentin, who also contacted Doyle with increasing frequency before his death, brought the generator to a docking bay. However, construction there interfered with the cameras. ARTHERR checks personnel files of the work crews and finds that chief Ignatz Maroni and several “Synth” (synthetic humanoid) laborers were on duty.

Jasmine brings a box of coffee to a construction site, where she meets rude Maroni, as well as Felinoid (“Uplifted” panther) Rosario Tamuz and Ursoid (“Uplifted” bear) Prini Vonchadry. Rosario [N.P.C./Greg] recognizes the former wrestler, who was banned from the ring after inadvertently killing a competitor. She and taciturn Prini [N.P.C./Beruk] invite Jasmine to join them for drinks after the strenuous job.

Capt. Gabriel Adams continues trying to persuade gynoids Tanya and Galia to help him conduct a heist of the Lucky Garden Casino. Rather than face angry medics or preachers again, Mr. Richmond Garrett stays aboard the Appomattox, attended by Nero Bartholomew and Averki “Deep Dish” Dyashenko.

Comparing notes aboard their yacht, ARTHERR reminds Hector that Archbishop Javier Fuentes had asked them to investigate the crime on behalf of the United Ecumenical Movement, which Doyle was no fan of. The investigators also learn that the itinerant preacher had offended local gambler Rev. Winston Jones by trying to have his followers take over Eclipse Station’s chapel.

Apparently, Doyle had orchestrated similar moves on other colonies in the outer Sol system. Using a Bible cipher, the spewer of fire-and-brimstone speeches directed his faithful to crowd out “the sinners and those lesser than Man” — referring to Synths, including artificial intelligences/robots and “Uplifted” animals.

Hector and ARTHERR view footage from after Valentin left the docking bay and before Doyle’s death. They see the smuggler enter the Ringtown Diner, where he talks with Louise Reinhagen, the widow of an Oromax megacorp executive killed in the Hephaestus Stadium disaster near Venus.

By reading their lips, ARTHERR is able to reconstruct some of the conversation between Doyle’s former supporters. Just as magnate Esteban Bakafret had helped provide the preacher transportation, so had Reinhagen given him financial support. The robot confirms suspicions of a blackmail plot leading to Doyle’s murder, but more evidence is needed.

Rosario and Prini take Jasmine through increasingly cluttered back corridors of the station in orbit around Titan. The tiger-woman is surprised to find a squatters’ camp, where the Synths can relax away from overseer eyes. Chim (“Uplifted” chimpanzee) mechanic Faisal Batar smokes another cigar.

Rosario asks Jasmine about her wrestling career and says that she wishes she had killed intolerant Doyle. Prini grunts in agreement. When Jasmine mentions the ritualistic aspects of the slaying, Rosario expounds on a theory that a Synth worshipping “dark gods” is responsible.

Prini observes that Melita Veturia, a Canid (“Uplifted” canine) supporter of the Synth Liberation Front on Mars and another suspect, wouldn’t mind eliminating a hatemonger, but disembowelment and pentagrams aren’t her style.

Jasmine manages to refrain from drinking more alcohol from the makeshift still. Rosario recalls seeing an “Uplifted” octopus with a cargo lifter around the time that Valentin passed through the docking bay. Jasmine excuses herself to return to her ship, as Prini talks about her encounter with the infamous pit fighter on various social media.

With Jasmine’s information, Hector runs another video search and finds footage of the Octopoid leaving an access tunnel between the docking bay and the site of Doyle’s murder. The away team goes to the Jeffries tube, and ARTHERR wheels himself in, scraping the white medical paint off one side.

The exploration droid finds a wider area in the passage where the octo-assassin could have assembled the field generator and battery used to restrain Doyle. Shortly thereafter, however, ARTHERR triggers a laser mesh that wily Hector crawls in to help disable. Burly Jasmine holds a rope, and Gabriel arrives to assist.

Undaunted, ARTHERR continues forward and is ejected as the duct swivels and shoots him out of Eclipse Station! He uses maneuvering thrusters to re-enter, as acrobatic Gabriel easily hangs on and Hector retrieves the industrial laser emitters.

Gabriel easily evades another trap — saw blades spiraling down the tube. The burglar loses part of one of Richmond’s fancy jackets. ARTHERR slides along the blade and is undamaged, and Hector and Jasmine go to meet them back at the crime scene.

They conclude that after Valentin procured the equipment and gave the order, the Octopoid could have suspended itself from the ceiling and used the generator to trap Doyle, who had been lured to the back passage somehow. Now that the means and possible motives have been established, the investigators want to confirm all the responsible parties.

After some debate, the team decides to question Ms. Reinhagen. Gabriel pilots the Appomattox down to the moon’s surface, while Hector calls with a blackmail counteroffer. The burned op tells Reinhagen that he knows she met with Valentin and talked about Doyle’s death before it happened. The wealthy widow initially denies everything.

Capt. Adams talks his way past an android butler and into a luxurious dome in New Syria. The psionic detective talks with Reinhagen, who says that Valentin was blackmailing her (not Doyle, as originally supposed) for an improper relationship with the preacher. She had threatened to go public with her support of Doyle and his teachings, somehow provoking Valentin to order the hit.

Jasmine returns to the Lucky Garden Casino to talk with Erta Garza, a Delphine (“Uplifted” dolphin) astrogator she had previously invited to join the Appomattox‘s crew. Not only does Erta know an Octopoid in Eclipse Station, but she also introduces Jasmine to him!

Kolidari, co-owner of the casino, relaxes in a pool/hot tub with the Delphine and curious Felinoid. (Using a voder, Kolidari sounds like archaic-era actor Sean Connery.) He brushes off any implications about Doyle and says that Jasmine should come and work for him rather than the other way around.

Even Gabriel’s underworld experience is of limited help as he tries to untangle the web of smuggling, illicit affairs, religious factions, and Synth activism around Doyle’s murder. He and Richmond’s plan to rob the casino is made more complicated by Kolidari‘s involvement.

Jasmine and Hector are less interested in a potential heist than in getting in touch with people back on Mars and Earth. ARTHERR reminds them that whatever they do, it will have to be done quickly, because the leaked Ru’ulok (heavy gravity reptilian alien) faster-than-light plans will soon allow the authorities and others to reach them in a matter of days….

Dave, I’m sorry that you missed our latest game. Paul and Beruk, remember to let me know about your availability for the Pathfinder/Skype: “the Vanished Lands” telecom fantasy game this coming Sunday. I met with Brian and Bruce’s friend Rich G., who’ll be joining us at next Monday’s “Vortex” Team 1 session. Have a good week, -Gene

Role-playing roundup: Science fiction, fall 2011 edition

My favorite author
Favorite author Isaac Asimov

Continuing my look at recent role-playing supplements such as The One Ring, I’ve managed to squeeze in reading some sourcebooks in between work, travel, and running games. Fantasy may be the primary genre in which I’ve played — and superheroes, steampunk, and time/dimension travel have yielded many memorable characters — but science fiction is still my first literary love.

As I’ve mentioned before in describing my “Vortex” game, my sandbox setting is largely inspired by classic space opera such as the novels of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and David Brin. It’s no surprise, then, that I liked the PDFs of Star Frontiers Remastered, StarCluster 3, and Stars Without Number so much that I ordered hardcopies. Stars Without Number is about to get a revised printing from Mongoose, publisher of the latest incarnation of Traveller.

The detailed “future history” of games such as Stellar Horizons and Ashen Stars is similar to that of “Vortex.” (I took a class on the topic back in college.) In these settings, humanity has colonized the Sol system and beyond but faces new threats such as alien horrors, as well as old ones like infighting. I like the political and technical extrapolations of Stellar Horizons and the idea of Player Characters as interplanetary troubleshooters in Ashen Stars.

At the same time, I’ve incorporated elements of more recent cyberpunk and transhumanist fiction in my campaigns. I’ve already used ideas from Panopticon, a supplement for the excellent Eclipse Phase, in recent sessions. I also still regularly refer to GURPS Terradyne, Blue Planet, and Jovian Chronicles for megacorporations, genetically engineered species, and descriptions of colonial life, respectively.

Speaking of mixing genres, the fantasy/cyberpunk Shadowrun has endured even as fashions have changed in the past few decades. I played and ran the game briefly in college. The Fourth Edition and the 20th Anniversary Edition — even though Shadowrun has been around for longer than that — are slick and straightforward, with solid rules (point-buy character creation, dice pools using D6s). I would have preferred more thorough location and faction descriptions rather than “flavor-text” fiction, but that was the style of games from the late 1980s and most of the ’90s.

Similar to Ashen Stars in time period is Chthonian Stars/Void, which has a strong horror bent. I haven’t yet gotten it, and Cubicle 7 did reply to my query about supplements for Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer and Legends of Anglerre. They’re delayed, but I look forward to eventually using them for “Vortex.” I’m also enjoying the lean FATE version of Bulldogs in the meantime.

After grabbing nearly every star map published for RPGs in the past 30 years, I recently ordered the excellent poster maps from Project Rho Productions. I’ll eventually need every human-habitable system within 100 parsecs, but this is a great start!