Triplanetary by E.E. Smith ***

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Alongside Asimov’s Foundation, Burrough’s Barsoom, Herbert’s Dune, and Heinlein’s Future History, E.E. Smith’s Lensman series is a seminal universe in science fiction. The first book in the series is called Triplanetary and establishes a united “federation” of planets allying Earth, Venus, and Mars. The beginning of the novel starts with an attack on Triplanetary by a “death star,” an artificial moon that is all but unstoppable. It uses “tractor beams” and “shields” to disable the Triplanetary ships and withstand their attacks. If it came out now it would seem to borrow heavily from the worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars, but it was in fact the other way around. This was the first novel to coin the term “tractor beam” and first to invent invisible shields around space ships (called “screens”). It was also the first to use phaser beams (called “projectors” by Smith).

No one loves Doc Smith’s work for it’s incredibly insightful three-dimensional characters or for it’s witty dialogue. No, this is a war story pure and simple and is about shit gettin’ blow’d up. It’s great pulp action and was way ahead of it’s time. Smith had a keen understanding of science and technology and he packed this adventure yarn to the gills with it. It also features enough twists and turns to keep it interesting.

As the “death star” is about to completely obliterate the entire Triplanetary fleet… swooping in out of light speed comes an alien race to attack Earth. So a human civil war immediately turns, mid battle, into a fight for species survival. The aliens are interesting and original and their method of killing is… unusual. They suck all of the iron from the body, leaving behind a bloodless white shell.

Many critics lament that Smith was merely a pulp writer who never elevated his work to that artistic level of his most famous pupil, Robert Heinlein, but he did actually have a flair for description:

“Above her, ruddy Mars and silvery Jupiter blazed in splendor ineffable against a background of utterly indescribable blackness–a background thickly besprinkled with dimensionless points of dazzling brilliance which were the stars.”

Heinlein named many of his characters “Smith” in honor of his biggest influence, including Valentine Michael Smith of Stranger in a Strange Land. In addition to it’s influence on all of the epic science fiction that followed, including Star Trek and Star Wars, the novel also directly inspired Steve Russell to create the original video game Spacewar! in 1962. Even though sf has grown up out of space opera and pulpy adventure, this novel is still a fun read and would definitely make good young adult reading.

I read and reviewed the original version of the story as it appeared in Amazing Stories in 1934. Smith did go back and add a few chapters to better tie it in to his later novels in 1948. I heard that the original edit was better. This book is in the public domain and can be found online.

3 projector beams outta 5

Tales of the Jedi *****

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Tales of the Jedi is a Dark Horse comic series consisting of seven graphic novels. I had time to read them all after I was laid up after foot surgery. This series, which began in 1993 and ran until 1998, was one of the first stories to be told in the Expanded Universe after the Star Wars franchise had pretty much died out. There was of course the Marvel comic book series which told stories about Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo until 1986 when it was canceled. After the cancellation of Lucas’ Ewoks and Droids cartoon series, the property laid dormant for almost ten years. The resurgence of interest began in 1991 with the publishing of Heir to the Empire by Timothey Zahn, the first of the post Return of the Jedi novels. Back then Lucas still had input in these materials. Tales of the Jedi is based upon notes given to the writers by Lucas himself. The first two graphic novels are about the origin of the Sith race and how they came to be controlled by a Dark Jedi. Now the word Sith goes hand in hand with the term Dark Jedi, but the Sith were originally a red-skinned humanoid race that formed the basis of a Dark Side empire on the other side of the galaxy from the Old Republic.

The tale begins 5,000 years before A New Hope. In this time the galaxy is not yet fully explored. Hyperspace jumps are extremely dangerous because navigation computers have not been invented yet. So only the bravest or most desperate explorers take random jumps hoping to find a new trade route and gain wealth and fame. A brother and sister team accidentally discover a Sith homeworld and inadvertently lead them back to the Old Republic. And so begins the first Sith War.

This story was excellent, although short, and gives a good backstory to the whole Dark Side/Light Side of The Force. Lightsabers have cords connected to power packs that were worn on the back or belt. It’s a nice touch, showing that we are in the old days of the Republic. After this introductory story, the narrative then leaps forward a thousand years.

The later five graphic novels all tell a connected self-contained story with the same characters. This is where it gets good. The main characters are two young Jedi brothers, Ulic Qel-Droma and Cay Qel-Droma, and a female Jedi, Nomi Sunrider. Their masters are good characters as well but it is the students who have the greatest character arcs. I especially liked Nomi Sunrider, someone who never wanted to be a Jedi Knight. I love this cover by Dave Dorman of the moment Nomi first picks up a lightsaber and realizes that she is a Force sensitive. It has such a mythic-religious aura about it. I even like how Dorman painted the rim lighting on her hair to resemble a halo.

Her husband is a Jedi Knight who is surprised and murdered by a band of thieves. To protect her child she picks up his lightsaber and cuts them all down with remarkable ease. The Force guides her to her husband’s master and she begins her training. But throughout the story she is a true pacifist and refuses to pick up a lightsaber again. She is not merely Luke with boobs (as Rey is) but a feminine mother protector. She eventually falls in love with the doomed Jedi Ulic Qel-Droma.

The story centers on a resurgence of Sith power on a backwater planet. Ancient Sith texts and artifacts from the previous story are discovered and once the dark techniques are mastered, the new Sith begin to easily start taking over again. One of the brothers in the story, Ulic Qel-Droma thinks that he can learn to control the Dark Side, but as always, he succumbs to it and joins the enemy. So you end up with brother vs. brother and lover vs. lover. It’s pure Greek tragedy.

Tales of the Jedi was co-written by Tom Veitch and science fiction writer (co-author of the Dune Universe) Kevin J. Anderson. The art in the series is not the best, but it is also not the worst. This series came out during the comic book boom of the ‘90s when artists were being paid more than any other time in history. Star Wars was not a best-selling property then so they had to make do with what they had. One interesting thing the editors did was have one artist draw the characters and another draw all the tech like ships and weapons.

What really makes this series great is that it was adapted into a series of audio dramas sold on cassette and CD. These were full productions with professional actors, sound effects, and music. I am kind of surprised at how well these radio plays brought this story to life and elevated the characters in my mind. The writers of the dramas expanded and clarified the story from the comic series making it into a movie of the mind’s eye. The only bad thing about it is that they weren’t able to finish it. The audio drama stops mid-way through the saga. Probably because the series kept going until 1998 and by then audio dramas weren’t selling well.

Now that Star Wars is done as a film property, I have turned to the books and comics that I missed or could not afford in the ‘90s. The stories were based upon George Lucas’ notes and are much truer to the original saga. Tales of the Jedi could easily be adapted into a film trilogy. The audio drama is essentially a film without the pictures.

5 Dark Siders Outta 5

You can listen to it on YouTube. The entire story was also released in a series of two large omnibus editions from Dark Horse. The video game The Knights of the Old Republic was inspired by this series. It takes place 40 years after these events.

Star Trek Beyond **

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Star Trek: Generations looks like Citizen Kane next to Star Trek Beyond. At least I felt some emotions during the former. Beyond is an exciting non-stop thrill ride, but nothing else. There was zero character development or arch, even for the villain. Spock gets to do absolutely nothing of significance. It really is Fast and Furious with space ships. It is not even a science fiction film, but an action adventure. There were no Romulans, no Klingons, or any of the famous Star Trek civilizations. The Enterprise crew is defending a space station and that’s the whole movie. Simon Pegg lied through his crooked teeth when he said this would appeal to Star Trek fans. Star Trek usually involves science and exploration. Neither were present in this movie. But if shoot outs, death defying stunts, and racing are your things, you will love it. The action is top notch as ILM threw everything they had on screen. The movie is so beautiful, it’s really a shame that they couldn’t find a story to tell. They could have grabbed any old Star Trek comic book or novel and just made that. But instead the plot merely leads us from one action set piece to the next. It is by far the weakest of the three reboots yet not as bad as Star Trek: Insurrection.

2 Nanobots Outta 5

Pegg also made a cringe worthy intro to the movie begging people to stop watching Netflix and go to obsolete theaters instead. They’re getting desperate. Make good movies and they will come. But this empty vfx-fest will play just fine on a 60″ home theater screen.

Hell or High Water ***

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Hell or High Water is a modern cops and robbers drama set in west Texas. Jeff Bridges continues his streak playing tough grizzled lawmen. Chris Pine delivers another great but understated performance as Bridges foil. I could watch these two read soup cans back and forth to each other all day. But sadly they only interact once in the entire film, but boy it’s some damn good acting. Ben Foster, who was probably cast because of his role as Billy Badass in 3:10 to Yuma, essentially plays the same role in this film. He and Pine are brothers and bank robbing partners. I don’t really buy Foster in this role. He’s supposed to be a tough guy but he doesn’t look so tough. He’s got a nerdy kid kind of face, which was covered up by a beard in 3:10 to Yuma and that helped immensely. He is probably most famous for playing Angel in X-Men 3. His character, unlike Pine’s, is also fairly one-dimentional. He also looks a little bit like Sean Penn which is maybe why I don’t like his face.  Tongue He also happened to be engaged to Penn’s ex, Robin Wright.

But this is really Bridge’s movie. He’s given more screen time than Pine and is on the side of lawful good. Pine is supposed to be the robber with the heart of gold, but it’s a highly unsympathetic role. The plot is dead simple Western formula: the two brothers’ family ranch is about to get taken over by the evil banks and they have only a matter of days to get the money to pay off the mortgage and liens. Even so, robbing banks is still a stupid and dangerous way to help your family out. You can see a bit of Heat in this film, where they want you to feel sympathetic for the cops and robbers, but not enough time is spent with Pine to really get to know him.

There are enough twists in this otherwise formulaic crime movie to keep it interesting. It’s also always nice to watch a film shot somewhere other than Los Angeles.

3 Foreclosures Outta 5

Baby Driver ***

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Heralded by critics as one of the best films of the year, Baby Driver deftly moves it’s crime/thriller/comedy story along at a fast clip yet it lives in a world of quirky unreality. Much like Edgar Wright’s other films Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim, the laws of logic and physics take a second seat to the action. People don’t die after getting shot. Bullets don’t impact main cast members even though they are clearly standing in the way of them. Crimes of murder and felony bank robbery are punished with light sentences. Rather than sweating bullets during a robbery that would guarantee 30 to life, Baby sings along to his mp3s with a smile.

So once you realize that this story doesn’t take place on Earth, but rather in a manchild’s imagination, you can at least enjoy the ride. Car stunts are great as is the cast which includes Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, and Jamie Foxx who blows everyone else off screen.

Like Guardians of the Galaxy the film utilized a plethora of ‘70s R&B hits. I don’t know, I just don’t think a 20 year old kid would be into that stuff. They try to explain why (his Mom was an R&B singer) but I still find it unlikely. It’s just a movie trope right now, ripped off from Tarantino movies of the ’90s.

It’s worth watching but this story could never happen.

3 stars outta 5

Wonder Woman ***

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I would put it alongside Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern as a mid tier superhero movie that was likewise clearly rushed and relied on CGI and green screen for the third act. Also like Green Lantern we are not really privy to what the limits of WW’s powers are. At the end she seemingly can generate energy balls like a Dragonball Z super saiyan even though this is never shown in the comic books.

The movie starts strong with some backstory about the Amazons, but it seems unlikely that they would have no idea about World War I if they are supposedly sworn to protect the innocent people of the world. It’s just one of many plot holes. Another one is the fact that Diana chose to intervene in the end of WWI yet did nothing of note during WWII (when she would have been even more badly needed)… or any other conflict on record for that matter. What has she been doing for the last 100 years?

The villains are never fleshed out or given much of a backstory – except for the god Ares – who, as a god, is not relatable. The music was better than Green Lantern yet it only had one or two themes. The CG was Snyder-rific with lots of fast to slow money shots. But much like BvS and Green Lantern there was just way too much of it. Wonder Woman just shows that a DC movie doesn’t have to be good to be a hit, it just has to be watchable. BvS and Suicide Squad could not even achieve that level of mediocrity.

3 stars outta 5

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets ***

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Inspired by James Cameron’s Avatar Luc Besson gambled all of the good will he harnessed by producing Taken and Lucy into the most expensive indie movie of all time. And it shows.

This is animation and vfx so good it had to be Weta, and they ain’t cheap. Not only that but ILM also did a huge chunk of the movie. It is THE vfx movie of the year, no doubt. Digital characters (hundreds of them) look so real that you almost think they are. Only problem is… he forgot to write a compelling story.

The film moves from one eye candy set piece to another with really interesting, never-before-seen action, but sadly all this viewer cared about were the visuals themselves. The two stars are much too young to be believable as space cops. They are given no backstories and are just our human connection on a space station full of CG aliens. Rihanna is in the movie… why? To have a million dollar Weta-enhanced dance number of course! Ethan Hawke is also in this scene for some reason.

It’s a strange movie to review because I do recommend seeing it, just to watch a madman burn hundreds of millions of dollars on fx work. There are some very interesting concepts and futuristic weapons and vehicles that are also worth the time. The design alone should win some kind of award, but in the end it’s a missed opportunity as Besson went for splash and not story.

If you have any bags of drugs lying around, after popping in this blu-ray with the surround sound turned up, I would suggest taking them.

3 astroships outta 5

Blade Runner 2049 **

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The hype is undeserved. Multiple critics said that the sequel was better than the original. That is simply a crazy thing to say. The entire movie is a callback. The look, the music, the characters, and the plot all would not exist without the first one. The sequel adds very little to the mythos. We still never leave Earth and rarely leave Los Angeles. The writing was fairly weak and has major plot holes.

Jared Leto is the new Tyrell. He is blind, a callback to Joe Turkel’s version who also had bad vision and got his eyes ripped out. They really don’t even try in Hollywood anymore do they? He wants a child that the first pregnant replicant gave birth to. That is the plot. Apparently if one wants a slave army it would be faster to impregnate female replicants rather than make them in the lab because it takes too long. Um… does this corporation realize that it takes 20 years to grow a baby into an adult? Really it takes 20 years to make a replicant? The original never mentioned this… because it’s fucking ridiculous.

Right off the bat we know Gosling is a replicant, so we don’t really care much about him. Then we find out that his girlfriend is an interactive piece of software, a basement dwelling nerd’s wet dream cum true. This makes us like him even less and of course we don’t give a shit about a character who’s made out of code. I thought that Leto’s performance was very good actually. He should have had more screen time. Gosling was fine, but he plays it deadpan. Ford was tremendous as always, but he also is barely in the film.

I was wishing that they had gotten Rutger Hauer for this because maybe he could have saved it. The main baddie is a two-dimensional female terminator, not exactly the poetic psychopath Roy Batty. It starts off strong with a good performance by Batista, but he’s quickly out of the movie. They have a great fight scene but that’s the last action you will be seeing for hours. Did I mention that this movie is 2049 hours long? It felt like it anyways. And for no reason really. It’s a fairly simple detective story that leads to an unsatisfying ending where plenty of loose ends are left hanging. They must have planned a sequel but that’s not going to happen now as this bombed at the box office badly. I can see why people didn’t turn out. It’s boring. There is a little more action at the end but it was not nearly enough. The story loses momentum by Act 3.

I would say that this was a missed opportunity but really that occurred in 1993 when the Ridley Scott Director’s Cut came out on video. It sparked a new interest in the film and that would have been the time to bring it back.

The whole “is Deckard a replicant” theory is weakly not dealt with. At least take a stand on it one way or the other. There are vague hints about it from Olmos but nothing certain. The music also was a big letdown. They didn’t even try. For the ending they just straight up replayed Vangelis.

I also did not like the way the movie fucked with the original story. They really just couldn’t come up with their own, they had to add a ridiculous swerve to the 1982 film for no reason. I am saddened by the knowledge that this director is going to remake Dune.

2 skin jobs outta 5

The Executioner #2 “Death Squad ” by Don Pendleton ***

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This book picks up right where War on the Mafia left off. Mack has a million dollar bounty on his head and every mobster in America wants to collect it. Bolan realizes that he may need some help. He recruits ten of his old ‘Nam buddies, all ruthless killers in their own right, and assembles a crack assassination squad. It would have been better if Pendleton had only shown Mack bringing in two or three old war buddies. With so many characters, it’s not possible to flesh them out in such a short novel. Half of them are pure stereotypes like the hippie, the Indian, etc. All of them easily agree to work for Mack, risking their lives and their freedom, merely for the thrill of killing and whatever spoils they can collect along the way. A little more conflict among the gang would have helped flesh out this straightforward story.

Because this is a team book it differs from the other Executioner novels. Mack is merely one of many characters which includes not only the Death Squad but also a cast of mobsters, hitmen, and cops. There is one glaringly absent character type… women. As in, not a single one. Mack doesn’t get laid even once, he’s just too busy killing. And kill he does. Now with a team he can wipe out entire Mafia families in one fell swoop. It is only when Mack finally underestimates multiple families ability to work together that things start to fall apart. Ten trained and heavily armed assassins can cause a whole lot of damage but there are only so many armed men they can kill at one time. Needless to say, after this experience, Mack decides that it’s best to work alone.

3 satchel charges outta 5

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? *****

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You would think that I would be reading old Batman comics this weekend with the death of Adam West, but instead I decided to read a more appropriate Superman story that I finally picked up. Heralded as one of the greatest Superman yarns of all time, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” was originally published in Superman #423 and Action Comics #583 in 1986. When one hears the words “greatest comic story of all time” one name always comes to mind, Alan Moore. And so it is with this finale of the original superhero. Moore was hot off of Watchmen and retiring long-time editor Julie Schwartz wanted the best for his final send off. The most famous Superman artist of the sixties Curt Swan was brought back to draw both issues with George Perez and Kurt Schaffenberger inking them.

The story is an “imaginary tale” of Superman’s last days. It has an epic, Lord of the Rings feel to it as Superman makes his final stand at the Fortress of Solitude, surrounded by his closest friends and lovers. All of his greatest villains team up all at once to make sure he dies for good. Even formerly mischievous and comic villains like Bizarro and Mr. Mxyzptlk turn to chaotic evil as they are simply sick of their foe’s existence. Superman realizes that he cannot take them all on at once, even with his great power. Lex Luthor’s mind and body are taken over by Brainiac who leads the assault and Superman’s lesser villains start to wipe out his secret identity, Metropolis and his friends.

The primary obstruction to Brainiac’s plan is of course the Justice League, so he forms an impenetrable force field around the Fortress that they can’t get past. Batman and Wonder Woman end up having to merely watch the final battle from the outside. What follows is complete carnage as Jimmy Olsen and Lana Lang are slaughtered and the Fortress of Solitude is destroyed by a nuclear blast. Superman himself is forced to kill for the first time as it’s the only option. Batman has only one line in the story after the forcefield is dropped, but it’s a good one: “It’s like walking amongst the fragments of a legend.”

As the title insinuates, by the end, Superman is no more. The character was then rebooted by John Byrne in the Man of Steel mini-series that reset Superman’s timeline after Crisis on Infinite Earths. This would be a great story for Warner Brothers to make as an animated film. My only complaint is that two issues were two few. Four would have been ideal. As it is, the final twist is contained only in the very last page.

5 Legends Outta 5

A newly recolored version of the story can be read here
http://readcomiconline.to/Comic/Superman-Whatever-Happened-to-the-Man-of-Tomorrow/TPB?id=70445