Screen Time [Sci-Fi Sunday]: The Outer Limits (1995): “Quality of Mercy” (S1: E13)


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’ve been dedicated every Sunday of January to celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Season One, Episode 13:
“Quality of Mercy”

Air Date: 16 June 1995
Director: Brad Turner
US Network: Showtime
UK Network: BBC 2
Stars: Robert Patrick, Nicole de Boer, and Mark McCracken

The Background:
The Twilight Zone (1959 to 1964; 1985 to 1989) wasn’t on when I was a kid; growing up, I only had the then-four channels of terrestrial television available to me so my sci-fi/horror anthology series of choice was The Outer Limits (1995 to 2002). A revival of the original 1960s show, The Outer Limits was an award-winning anthology series originally broadcast here in the United Kingdom on BBC 2; every week, a new tale would unfold, usually revolving around aliens, artificial intelligence, or other sci-fi, horror, or fantastical stories, though there were also a number of recurring themes, characters, and even semi-sequential stories to be found in the show’s long history. Considering my nostalgia and affection for the series, it’s great to see others also have a fondness for the show, and I’m always happy to revisit it when I get the opportunity.

The Plot:
Mankind is fighting a losing battle against an aggressive alien race; at the height of the conflict, Major John Skokes (Patrick) is captured and imprisoned alongside a young cadet, Bree Tristan (de Boer). While Stokes is determined to escape and return to the fight, his defiance is rattled when he discovers that the alien jailers have begun experimenting with grafting samples of their own skin onto Bree in an effort to make her one of them!

The Review:
“Quality of Mercy” begins with Major John Skokes being forcibly dragged and manhandled into a prison cell on an alien world but a physically superior, war-like race of aliens who have been locked in a one-sided battle against Earth’s United Nations Defense Forces (UNDF) for some time. An abrasive, proud, and stubborn military man, John’s first instinct in all things is to fight back, even when he’s clearly outmatched by his alien captors. This instinct extends not just to his defiance at being thrown into a cell, right when he’s at the peak of the war no less, but also to his determination to find a way out of the cell and to his initial militant attitude towards his cell-mate, the timid and terrified Bree Tristan. While John is a combat veteran who has fought on the front lines of the war for so long that he hasn’t actually been back to Earth in years, Brie is a cadet (second class) from Europa base who has only ever flown and fought in training missions. Captured during the “second Europa raid”, Brie estimates that she has been imprisoned and tortured for about three months and has been by herself for some time after her commander, Hartley, a much older and physically impaired man, died some time ago. She’s been kept there, in the dark and alone, ever since; forced to scavenge for food by chasing after the odd little rubbery parasites her captors toss to her and having lost all track of time and hope, Brie’s state of mind is only further fractured by the horrific experiments the aliens have been conducting on her as they have been routinely grafting their skin and DNA onto her body into an effort to physically transform her into one of them!

While John is determined to escape back to the fight, Brie is overcome by the futility of it all.

While Brie is off getting tortured, John busies himself exploring every inch of their cell, which is home to a pool of acid-like liquid and a curious red vegetation that seems more than a little inspired by the works of H. G. Wells. Although the diamond-hard walls cannot be breached, John is able to climb them to a barred ventilation shaft in the ceiling, through which he can hear the screams and desperate cries of Brie (and other humans) being tortured. After fashioning a cutting tool from a shard of the rock, John sets to work using all of his strength and free time trying to cut through the bars in the ceiling; although Brie is wracked by pain and despair at her condition, John offers her hope not only in his discovery but in giving her physical comfort. Having been caught up in the conflict, Brie has lived without love and passion or the touch of another, and derives much solace and comfort from even John’s hesitant attempts to console her. While Brie desperately tries to cling on the love and believes it’s what separates humanity from their enemy, John has been consumed by hatred; he is so resolute in his determination to escape that he’s even willing to go down fighting, if need be, but considers this a worst-case scenario. Feeling sympathy for her plight and virginity, having been so caught up in conflict that he has lost touch with the simple pleasures of life, John takes his sexual urges towards Brie and uses them as more motivation to cut through the bars, and pays the price for his stubbornness when his leg is shredded by a ravenous little creature in the vent and his hand is cut off at the wrist when he foolishly tries to keep Brie from being harmed further.

Brie is distraught as she loses more and more of her humanity and identity to the aliens’ experiments.

John’s determination stems from a deep-rooted need to get back into the fight because the future of humanity depends upon it; he was excited to deal a decisive blow against the enemy for the first time and to prove that they could be bested, and is angered at being captured right when he’s needed the most. John’s mindset contrasts heavily with Brie’s and both characters provide not only different perspectives on the conflict but to the world-building of this episode; John apparently embodies the single-minded, militaristic focus of those in the thick of the fight, while Brie seems very much against the war. Since John has been fighting pretty much non-stop for the last four years, he hasn’t seen what’s become of the Earth; Brie has however, and horror stories of a world turned into a police state, churning out munitions and training soldiers in a constant cycle to feed the war effort. John, however, remains adamant that humanity will come out of the war stronger than ever; he believes that the conflict will unite humankind, ending their petty squabbles and political and racial differences, to come together as one unified race. Forced into service by a standardised test and lacking John’s passion for the fight, Brie is ashamed to admit that she caved under torture and spilled everything she knew to spare herself further pain (though, as a mere cadet and a trainer, neither she nor Hartley had no information of real value) and she doesn’t share John’s fighting attitude or confidence that their enemy can be defeated. Of course, her will is only further sapped by the continual experiments and violations she suffers at the hands of their captors; the alien skin grafts cause her incredible physical pain and cannot be forcibly removed, despite John’s best efforts. Brie is taken away again and again, changing a little more each time, and her sense of identity and humanity degrade a little more each time she returns. At first, the graft is simply a leathery, reptilian wound on her arm but, soon, her entire back is converted into a sickening alien flesh and part of her face is lost to the aliens’ appalling visage.

John’s determination sees him gravely injured, but his resolve is shattered by Brie’s devastating revelation.

With Brie’s transformations becoming more and more severe, and John’s injuries effectively crippling any minor chance they had at escape, the two begin to realise that their options have become severely limited. With a heavy heart, John admits that he can’t fulfil his promise; earlier, Brie talked about how she and Hartley had planned to commit suicide but he was too weak to go through with it and she was too scared, and sadly John is unable to bring himself to put her out of his misery due to how attached to her he has become. Still, Brie is grateful that John was able to give her a brief, shining moment of hope for herself and for humanity and, with the end in sight, John tries one last time to comfort her with the knowledge that, although it may be the end for them, humanity will live on. John reveals that the UNDF has been feigning defeat and have held back a massive armada of their strongest fighters on the far side of the Sun, which were due to launch a devastating attack on the alien home world thirty days before John was captured. He fully believes that this desperate military strike will be a turning point in the war, and enough to strike a crippling blow against the enemy even though the two of them won’t live to see it, but he is left screaming in despair when Brie drops a bombshell of her own. When the alien jailer (McCracken) returns once more, Brie willingly goes to it and reveals that she was being changed back into one of them, thus exposing herself as a sleeper agent who has manipulated John into revealing humanity’s greatest military secret and assumedly dooming the human race to destruction.

The Summary:
“Quality of Mercy” is one of a handful (something like six to eight) episodes of The Outer Limits that really stuck with me, both as a kid when I first watched it and now, later in life. I remember enjoying this episode so much, being so influenced by it, that I plagiarised it for a short story assignment at secondary school! Although the episode is pretty much confined to one rather uninspiring location (an alien prison cell that looks to have taken a leaf out of Star Trek’s (1966 to 1969) playbook) and only really feature three character’s, its themes of human determination, and naivety, beautifully summed up as always by the narrator (or “Control Voice”; Kevin Conway): “Men of war have long known that warriors must often abandon those verities they defend. Peace, human kindness, love…for they hold no meaning to the enemy. And so, to win, do we become what we despise…and despise what we become? In the darkest of hours…in the greatest of battles…we must never forget who, or what, we are.“

The aliens are mysterious, physically imposing, and sadistic war-like race who have humanity endangered.

Although they’re not given a name, we are told quite a few things about the alien force that has imprisoned our main characters. They are a war-like race with little compassion and, though they can apparently understand human language and speak it through a machine, they have no understanding of concepts like “mercy”; they treat their prisoners like rats to be observed, forcibly experimented on, and dissected to learn more about their ways and their enemy. They seem oddly curious about human beings; they left Commander Hartley’s body in the cell with Brie for some time as if expecting her to do something with it (and John suspects that they eat their dead) and were fascinated by the differences between male and female bodies and sexual organs. Brie recounts with disgust and dismay how they forced her to strip down and violated her with probes and instruments, and of course she is horrified at the continued alterations being made to her body by their experiments. The aliens are depicted as huge, armoured creatures that tower over and physically dominate their captors, despite John’s best efforts to fight them back and, though we don’t see their forces in this episode, we do here many a horror story from John about how the alien’s ships have decimated humanity’s forces and proved to be a high-unconquerable enemy. And yet, despite Brie trying to encourage John to partake of the limited sustenance the aliens provide and talk him out of the futility of trying to escape or discover some weakness in their captors, John’s resolve remains absolute and steadfast His immediate focus is on learning the layout of their cell, figuring out how observed they are, and gathering as much information as he possibly can about where they are and what options are available to him, and he continually shouts defiance to his captors, taunting them with the revelation that he personally destroyed on of their capital ships and remaining adamant that they aren’t as indestructible as they immediately seem.

John’s desperation to give Brie hope may very well have doomed humanity to total destruction.

In the end, “Quality of Mercy” is a harrowing tale of desperation, deceit, and determination; John and Brie couldn’t be two more different, contrasting characters and they react to their hopeless situation in wildly different ways that both define and alter their characters and add to the intriguing lore of this world. Set in a future where humanity has been locked in an interstellar war for so long that Earth’s entire society has changed to become entirely focused on producing weapons, soldiers, and ships for the conflict and hatred for their aggressive, uncompromising alien enemy has become the norm, over-riding compassion, love, and the simple pleasures of life. John embodies this perfectly, being a good soldier who is frothing at the mouth to get back out there and fight, whether it means his death or not, and is defiant right up until the moment where he realises that the only way out is suicide. Of course, the most memorable moment of this episode is the shocking twist ending; this blew my mind as a kid, and I really think the episode does a great job of building up to this reveal as Brie is so timid and frightened and clinging to her humanity with everything she has and is positioned as an innocent victim of horrendous torture. The slow degradation of her body is juxtaposed with her failing hope for the future of humanity, and every action John takes is geared towards restoring that hope and finding a way out, and a way to fight! Ultimately, however, he is just another pawn manipulated by a superior alien force; the final shot of him screaming in hopeless defiance is extremely powerful and has stuck with me for decades. I’ve always enjoyed the bleak twist endings that closed out many episodes of The Outer Limits, and “Quality of Mercy” is easily one of the best for that thanks to how strong the two lead’s performances are and how well the episode uses every bit of its limited budget and run time.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Have you ever seen “Quality of Mercy” or the 1995 revival of The Outer Limits? If so, what did you think to it and what were some of your favourite episodes? Did you see the twist coming or were you as shocked as I was when I first saw this episode? What are some other stories of alien transformation and conflict that you enjoy? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to sign up and leave a comment below or leave a reply on my social media, and be sure to check back in next week for the conclusion of Sci-Fi Sunday.

Back Issues [Sci-Fi Sunday]: Total Recall


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’m spending every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Story Title: Total Recall
Published: May 2011 to August 2011
Writer: Vince Moore
Artist: Cezar Razek

The Background:
Total Recall (Verhoeven, 1990) was the blockbuster adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. Though an extremely expensive production, Total Recall was a critical success and widely regarded as one of the greatest science-fiction/action movies of all time. Total Recall’s success led to a number of adaptations, including a videogame and even a somewhat-tangentially-related television series, Total Recall 2070 (1999). While Minority Report (Spielberg, 2002) began life as a sequel to Total Recall, we wouldn’t see an actual follow-up to the sci-fi classic until over twenty years after the film’s release when Dynamite Entertainment acquired the license and produced this four-issue miniseries that picked up immediately where the film ended.

The Review:
As mentioned, “Total Recall” begins right where the movie left off with no question about whether the film’s events were real or a delusion of hero Douglas Quaid; Mars is now home to a breathable atmosphere, effectively turning it into a smaller version of Earth. Quaid still struggles a bit with his sense of identity and self, since everything that has transpired is exactly as specified by Rekall, Inc., and, while he is grateful to be alive, he questions what is next for him now that his “Ego Trip” has reached its conclusion. While Mars administrator Vilos Cohaagen dead, his forces are still as loyal as ever and not only open fire on Quaid and his love interest (and member of the rebels), Melina, but also launch an all-out assault on the rebels of Venusville. There, they reunite with fellow rebels Thumbelina and Tony, that latter of which remains frosty and distrustful of Quaid (whom he continuously calls “Hauser”) and tries to attack him for his part in the death of the rebel leader, Kuato.

Quaid overcomes his identity crisis by becoming a mediator for peace.

Tired of all the fighting and discord, Quaid opts to go against Tony’s advice and dive into gunfire to appeal to Captain Everett in the hopes of brokering a truce between the warring forces. While Everett reluctantly agrees to stand his troops down on the proviso that Quaid can convince the rebels to do the same, he also reveals that, with Cohaagen and Kuato both dead, anarchy is breaking out all over Mars and that Cohaagen’s two children, Milos and Vila, are set to arrive and act as the new administrators of the planet. Milos and Vila vow to continue the mining of “Turbinium” (or “Terbinium”; both spellings are used at various points) and to improve the quality of life on Mars while still supporting the war effort back on Earth but it doesn’t take long before the killing and terrorist acts flare up again and the two are reinstating martial law across the planet. Additionally, the mutants of Venusville are suffering from an inexplicable, fatal disease of sorts that claims the life of Eva, the young mutant girl who told Quaid’s fortune in the film and who mutters, with her dying breath, a warning that “the Martians are coming”.

Mars gets new administrators, but conflict is rife as Quaid uncovers more Martian tech.

Tensions flare between Tony and Quaid once more over Eva’s death and the unexplained deaths of other mutants all across the Martian colony, which Tony is quick to pin on the Cohaagens. Quaid, however, speculates that Mars’ new atmosphere may be responsible and resists Tony’s rallying call for the rebels to take up arms against the administrators. Quaid’s pleas fall on stubborn, deaf, and frightened ears, however, and Mars is once again thrown into bloody and violent conflict, which only escalates when the Cohaagens respond by cutting off the water supply to know-rebel areas of the planet. The result is many people protest at being tarnished with the same brush, many other die, and the Mars military relentlessly hunt down and kill or arrest any rebels and mutants they come across. Quaid is, however, able to buy the rebels of Venusville time to get them to some kind of safety by pleading with one of the army’s sergeants (who know that Quaid, the muscle-bound action hero who never reloaded his gun once, was such a diplomat?) Still, Quaid is preoccupied with the continued warning about the “Martians” and heads back to the Pyramid Mines in hopes of finding some kind of answers.

The arrival of the Martians throws Mars into further chaos!

There, he discovers another gigantic, ancient Martian machine and a mutant named Q’d, who bares a striking similarity of Quaid and keeps repeating: “The Martians are coming. I must prepare the way”. Fearing what the machine could unleash if activated (much like Cohaagen in the film, it has to be said), Quaid attacks but is soundly overwhelmed by the man, who activates “the second machine” to “[preserve] the Mar on Mars” by covering it in vegetation and, in response, the Martians return to their planet. The Martians’ arrival causes a great deal of fear and concern amongst everyone on both Mars and Earth; still, M’s’s, the enigmatic spokesperson of the Martians’ assures them that they come in peace and that their intentions are to help humans and mutants alike find their place on Mars. Milos, however, is concerned that the moss is a threat to their position of power on the planet and his desire to seek revenge against Quaid for killing their father, with all the fighting and bloodshed merely being a minor concern against that goal and the mining of Turbinum. Vila, however, doesn’t share this same sentiment and actually conspires against her brother’s machinations in order to make the most of her inheritance.

Richter makes a surprise appearance…only to be defeated almost immediately.

Quaid is largely nonplussed about the appearance of Martians (which is a bit odd and contradictory considering he was so dead-set on finding out what Eva’s warning meant just a few pages earlier…) as there are lives at stake from the mysterious fatal affliction striking down the mutants. Tony, however, remains unconvinced about his intentions and desire to track down the root cause of it all, and mass rioting breaks out, forcing the Cohaagens to turn to Quaid for help regarding their common interests. Although Quaid is able to track down Q’d, believing him to be the key to solving all of the recent problems on Mars, he is once again bested in combat and then ambushed by Richter! Having somehow survived his plummet, and his sporting mechanical arms, Richter chokes Q’d and then attacks Melina in revenge for her part in Lori’s death. However, Richter allows his emotions to get the better of him and is easily dispatched when Quaid rams into him with a digger and sends him plummeting down a canyon, wasting all of our time in the process.

The mutants recover from their illness just in time for the military to prepare to destroy the colony!

However, Quaid is unable to stop Q’d from activating the final Martian machine, bringing water to the Red Planet and causing both Martians sudden appear all over the planet and, in the process, mass panic. The illness that had crippled and killed the mutants suddenly has the opposite effect, imbuing them incredible physical strength and vitality, although M’s’s states that this as an unintended side effect as the Martian machines weren’t built to consider their effect on mutants. In response to the Martian “invasion”, Admiral Nimitz of the Northern Block assumes command of the Martian colony and orders the army to open fire on the Martians. Using psionic powers, the Martians are able to shield themselves from harm but many innocent people are killed in the fracas; this time, Captain Everett refuses to listen to Quaid’s pleas and the two brawl before Everett is ordered to cease his attack anyway. Much to the outrage of the Cohaagens, Nimitz plans to attack the colony with the Reagan space weaponry platform in order to cleanse the aliens in one move.

Quaid once again saves Mars from destruction and commits to his perception of reality.

Enraged at having his birthright taken from him, Milos ventures out with a gun to kill M’s’s and, when he saves the Martian’s life, Quaid. Luckily for Quaid, Milos is a terribly shot and Quaid is easily able to disarm him, though Milos refuses to co-operate with him. Vila, however, is much more co-operative and allows Quaid to take their private shuttle to the weapons platform to shut it down before it can fire. During all that drama, M’s’s drones on and on to Melina about how the Martians foresaw everything that transpired in the film (and this comic…though apparently not the mutants…?) and set in motion everything Quaid would need to bring life to Mars as recompense for the Martians’ previous destructive ways. Joined by Q’d, Quaid and Melina fight their way through the space station’s marines all while cracking jokes and quips. Still, Quaid manages to hit the abort button and save Mars once again. In the aftermath, the Cohaagens remain in control of the colony (and Milos begrudgingly abandons his vendetta against Quaid), the beginnings of co-operation and communication are forged between the military and the Martians, and the story ends with Quaid not really caring if it had all been a dream and just making out with Mileena.

The Summary:
As I mentioned in my review of the film,Total Recall is one of my all-time favourite movies; it’s action-packed, thought-provoking, and features some of the most impressive practical effects ever put to film. The film’s complex themes of identity and reality are matched only by how elaborate he sets and animatronics are and the film is almost the perfect balance of action, humour, and intrigue. I could honestly watch it every day and talk about it for hours and never get tired of it; the nostalgia and influence of it is that strong for me.

The comic’s pacing is all over the place and bogged down by exposition!

It’s a shame then that this comic book continuation is so mind-numbingly dull and boring! For a comic that is a follow-up to Total Recall, there is so much exposition crammed into every page, every speech bubble and text box, and even during fights! Exposition and world-building was delivered at an easy-to-digest pace in the film but, here, characters go on and on and on about basically nothing and it’s much more a tale of diplomacy than an action-packed thrill-ride. Quaid, especially, suffers from this; given that he (somewhat…) resembles Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s really weird trying to imagine the Austrian Oak spouting as much dialogue as his comic-book counterpart does. His speech patterns are so not-Arnold that it’s almost to the point of parody and I never pegged Quaid, a man who was bored by his mundane existence and relished the idea of being a secret agent, to be the voice of reason!

Melina gets very few moments to shine and may as well not even be in this mess of a story…

Other returning characters equally suffer; Melina may as well not even be in the story since she does so little and Tony’s animosity towards Quaid, while somewhat understandable, is comically exaggerated to the point where he dismisses any suggestion that isn’t all-out war. It was a nice surprise to see Richter make a reappearance but it was an absolute waste of time and effort as he basically has no impact on the story at all (his role could easily have been fulfilled by an extended fight sequence with Q’d). As for the introduction of Martians…I mean, what? Obviously the film hinted that Martians existed but actually seeing them was a bit jarring, as was Q’d’s inexplicable resemblance to Quaid (that I don’t think was explained…?) and the fact that they, too, basically did nothing. Again, it would have been a lot easier to have them be a long dead society whose technology is appropriated by humans, or the Cohaagens, or whatever rather than having them wander about making speeches and disappearing for huge chunks of the story.

Quaid often gets his ass handed to him in the comic’s few fight scenes.

It’s a shame as there are some glimmers of enjoyment to be had here; when the action actually picks up, it’s pretty fun and exciting but a lot of it eventually falls flat because the art really isn’t very good at all and Quaid is constantly being bested in combat. I suppose this has some resemblance to the film as Quaid did struggle when fighting Lori (Sharon Stone) and Richter (Michael Ironside) but I would argue that was mainly due to him being attacked when he was unprepared. Here, he often has the upperhand against much smaller foes, like Milos, and still struggles to hold his own; many of his fights end anti-climatically as a result and the whole thing just feels like a massive waste of everyone’s time as it does a pretty terrible job of continuing Total Recall’s story or paying homage to one of the greatest sci-films of all time.

My Rating:

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Terrible

Have you ever read Dynamite Entertainment’s Total Recall comics? If so, what did you think to them? Did you feel like the story was a good way to continue the movie or, like me, were you disappointed at how boring, clunky, and unappealing it was? What did you think to the introduction of Martians to the plot and Richter’s sudden reappearance? Do you think the events of the film, and the comic, were all real or were they just Quaid’s delusion? Leave your thoughts about Total Recall, whatever form it takes, in the comments below and check back in next week as Sci-Fi Sunday continues.

Talking Movies [Sci-Fi Sunday]: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’m spending every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Talking Movies

Released: 5 May 2017
Director: James Gunn
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $200 million
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell, and Michael Rooker

The Plot:
After incurring the wrath of the Sovereign, the Guardians of the Galaxy are saved by Ego (Russell), a Celestial being who takes the form of a sentient planet. Claiming to be Peter Quill/Star-Lord’s (Pratt) true father, Ego promises to open Quill’s mind to the vast power and knowledge of the universe, but Quill’s adopted father-figure, Yondu Udonta (Rooker), reveals a far more sinister motive behind Ego’s seemingly benign nature.

The Background:
Despite being one of Marvel’s more obscure properties, and having undergone many changes over the years, the Guardians of the Galaxy proved to be a massive financial success after making their live-action debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Since the property was deemed to have strong franchise potential, and to even become as integral to the MCU as the Avengers, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the director and cast of the first film were soon revealed to be returning for a sequel. While determined to expand on the cast and lore of the first film, Gunn was mindful about overloading the sequel with a slew of new characters; Gunn went solo on the film’s story, which he planned to focus on exploring a new version of Star-Lord’s heritage, and was afforded a great deal of creative control regarding the direction of the story and its place in the wider MCU. Gunn also continued to push the importance of practical effects and set wherever possible, especially as the film would make far more liberal use of computer-generated effects to bring Ego (one of the most complex CGI creations ever) to life. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s box office gross of over $863 million surpassed that of its predecessor, but reviews were generally more mixed; while the film was praised for being visually impressive and telling a surprisingly touching story, the pace and tone received some criticism. Still, the film cemented the team’s importance to the MCU and its success easily justified not only a third movie but also a holiday-themed special.

The Review:
I was pleasantly surprised by Guardians of the Galaxy; despite knowing next to nothing about the team or the concept heading into it when it first came out, the trailers and marketing had won me over and appealed to my love of science-fiction romps and bizarre comedic superhero adventuring. The film was a real breath of fresh air for the MCU at a time when things were just starting to really gear up towards full-on cosmic shenanigans and it remains one of my favourite entries not just in Phase Two, but in the entire franchise. So, to say my anticipation was high for the sequel would be an understatement; once again Marvel had outdone themselves by somehow getting Kurt Russell onboard and just the idea that they would even consider doing a concept like Ego, a literal sentiment planet, really told you all you needed to know about the scope of the MCU going forward: nothing was off limits, not even the most bizarre cosmic element of the source material.

The team may function a lot better now but they’re still a dysfunctional and argumentative bunch.

Some time has passed since the events of the first film, and the Guardians of the Galaxy have become somewhat renowned as a freelance peacekeeping force, of source and are happy to help those in need…for a price. Thanks to having saved the galaxy, they can afford to charge higher rates for their services, but it’s undeniable that they’re a much more well-oiled team than the band of misfits and outcasts we saw in the last film. The family dynamic has been dialled up to eleven, with Quill and Gamora (Saldaña) acting as the parental figures of the group, Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) and Rocket Raccoon (Cooper/Sean Gunn) acting as petulant teenagers, and Baby Groot (Diesel) as the curious and mischievous child. However, while they have clearly grown as a team and a surrogate family, the Guardians remain flawed and troublesome characters: hired by the Sovereign to destroy the inter-dimensional Abilisk, the team struggle to get their shit together and attack the beast between bickering with each other over their priorities and weapon choices and expressing concern for Baby Groot, whom they are all fiercely protective of. Although far from his larger, more capable self from the first film, Baby Groot proves instrumental in helping Rocket escape from the Ravagers, but is primarily here to cute appeal and comic relief; young and childish, he has trouble understanding things sometimes, which leads to a number of amusing instances where he struggles to retrieve items or follow instructions.

Rocket angers the Sovereign and pushes away his friends with his abrasive attitude, something Yondu can relate to.

As before, the one member of the team with the most sense remains Gamora, who is the only one capable and clear-headed enough to deliver the killing blow to the Abilisk. To be fair, Quill was the one who recognised that the creature had a pre-existing wound on its neck for Gamora to exploit, but Drax’s best plan was to foolishly try and attack the beast from the inside. While their methods are often haphazard and lacking in finesse, they get the job done and it’s Quill who takes point in speaking for the team to Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the enigmatic and alluring High Priestess of the Sovereign race. While Quill flirts with Ayesha and attempts to keep relations with the proud race amicable, they incur her wrath when Rocket steals a bag full of their incredible rare and Anulax Batteries; of all the members of the team, it’s Rocket who struggles the most to let go of his selfish and underhanded ways, which brings him into continued conflict with the team and Quill’s leadership. A grouchy and antagonistic character, he actively pushes people away, even those closest to him, to avoid being hurt by them; he finds an unlikely confidante in Yondu Udonta (Rooker), an embittered space pirate who has spent his life doing the same thing and urges Rocket to recognise that he has people who actually care about him and help repair his relationship with Quill and his misfit family.

An ages-old Celestial, Ego wishes to spread his influence across the galaxy to consume all life.

Overwhelmed by the Sovereign fleet, the Guardians are mere moments away from being blown to smithereens thanks to Quill and Rocket wasting time and energy bickering over their piloting skills. Although they are saved by the timely intervention of Ego, the Milano is crippled, but Quill finds something he has long been missing in his life: his father. A sentient planet, Ego reveals himself to be an ages-old Celestial, a being who has known nothing but loneliness for the longest time; his only companion is Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a naïve and sheltered character who strikes up an odd relationship with Drax and uses her empathic powers to help Ego sleep…and to ease his conscience. Thanks to some extremely impressive de-aging effects and a facial double (Aaron Schwartz), the film opens with Kurt Russell appearing in his prime years back in the eighties to woo Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) and sows the seeds (literally and figuratively) for Ego’s true plot to spread his consciousness across the entire galaxy using seeds planted on distant worlds. To do this, he needed to sire a part-Celestial heir but was continuously met with failure; the bodies of his rejected children are literally piled up and hidden away on his planet, and his joy at finding Quill can harness his cosmic powers soon turns to anger when his son chooses to turn that very power against him to oppose his dreams of galaxy-wide conversion.

The Guardians face threats from all sides as enemies old and new conspire to enact their revenge.

The Sovereign turn Nebula’s semi-cybernetic stepsister, Nebula (Gillan), over to the Guardians. Nebula’s hatred and resentment of Gamora has only grown between films; as children, their adopted father, Thanos (Josh Brolin), had them fight for supremacy over and over, and Gamora won every single time, reaping in Thanos’s praise while Nebula was replaced a piece at a time with mechanical parts. Gamora is happy to return Nebula to Xandar to collect her bounty and rid herself of her brutal stepsister once and for all, but Nebula is driven by rage and bitterness and takes every opportunity she can get to break free and hunt her sister down. This leads her to forming a brief, mutually beneficial alliance with the Sovereign and Taserface (Chris Sullivan), a mutilated member of Yondu’s crew who might be a laughable threat with a ridiculous name but he incites a mutiny and flushes those who stand against him and his followers out into space. This only further complicates matters for Yondu, who raised Quill as a space pirate and thief after learning of Ego’s true nature and intentions for the young Quill, but his part in child trafficking left him and his crew dishonoured and ostracised from the wider Ravager community by prominent Ravager figurehead Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone). Betrayed by many of his crew, Yondu is forced to team up with Rocket to enact a merciless revenge with his fancy tricky arrow and rush to Quill’s aid when Ego’s true intentions are revealed, and an intense and brutal battle between Nebula and Gamora sees the two sisters reaching a mutual understanding and gaining the Guardians an additional unlikely ally for the finale.

The Nitty-Gritty:
As before, music and pop culture play an important part not just in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s soundtrack but in defining Quill’s character, especially in relation to his mother. The flashback at the start of the film shows how Ego assumed the form of an irresistible 1980s rogue: he’s got the mullet, the car, and the tunes to go along with it and easily wins over Meredith with his good looks and silver tongue. Ego’s undeniable charisma and ability to manipulate his form are made more explicit when he pours vocal honey into Quill’s ears with stories of his love for Meredith and even assumes the form of his childhood hero, David Hasselhoff (Himself), showing that Ego knows exactly how to manipulate people by playing to (and preying on) their likes, hopes, and dreams. Quill’s love for music stems from his mother, who put together mixtapes for him that he listens to endlessly on his Walkman and onboard the Milano; so great is his love for music that Rocket even prioritises setting up a loud speaker for them to listen to Quill’s tune during their battle with the Abilisk and Quills still firmly drawing his pop culture reference from his childhood and the seventies and eighties. Just as these elements help him to remember and feel closer to his mother (and bond him closer with his newfound family), so too do they help to quickly build up a trust between him and his father when Ego expresses a liking for the same music and pop culture that was so integral to Quill’s childhood.

Space combat and action might be fleeting but are beautifully brought to life with some stunning visuals.

I remember being a little disappointed by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 when I first saw it as I was expecting the film to be bigger and better than the first but, similar to Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015), it struck me as being just as enjoyable as the original, which actually knocked my rating of it. I have no problem with it telling a story more focused on the tea dynamic and exploring these characters further, I just hadn’t expected it when I first saw it, so I definitely appreciated it more on repeat viewings. However, there is still a decent amount of onscreen action and visual spectacle to keep viewers entertained: the Sovereign are a minor antagonistic force in the film existing mainly to drive the plot forwards and get our heroes to Ego, but they have a unique armada comprised of thousands (maybe even millions) of remote drones that are piloted very much like arcade machines and lead to some frantic space battles and an intense chase through a “quantum asteroid field” that’s like the asteroid chase from Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980) on steroids! The hexagonal jump points help to add to the mysterious nature of the galaxy and result in an amusing scene where Rocket and Yondu are warped in bizarre ways by multiple jumps, and Ego pilots a sleek, egg-like ship that is unlike any other in the galaxy, but the true visual spectacle of the film is realised when the characters arrive on Ego’s planet. A lush, verdant alien world home to some bizarre, vegetation and an elaborate palace housing Ego’s memories and plans, Ego’s world is just like him: beautiful and alluring at first glance but hiding a dark secret beneath the surface that comes to fruition when Ego’s very face warps the planet’s crust.

Family is even more pivotal this time around as bonds are reforged or rejected in favour of true family.

The dysfunctional family dynamic between the titular team is a pivotal element of the sequel; although they’re far more trusting and accepting of each other, they still wind each other up and get on each other’s nerves. While much of this is embodied by Rocket, Drax’s blunt and literal perspective doesn’t help matters much and Quill is continuously distracted by his attraction to Gamora. Despite Drax’s assertions that Gamora isn’t interested in him in that way, she’s incredibly supportive of Quill and is touched by his stories of his childhood pining for a father who wasn’t there, which confuses and angers him when she suspects that something isn’t quite right about Ego’s planet and raises questions about what counts as true family, blood or those you are closest to. Naturally, the question of Quill’s parentage is a huge plot point of the film; after being left as a blatant dangling plot thread and piece of sequel bait in the first film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 goes to great lengths to establish that Quill isn’t fully human, like his comic book counterpart, and is instead part-Celestial thanks to being one of Ego’s many progeny seeded across the galaxy. This afford him many fantastic abilities when present on Ego’s plant form, and potentially opens up the vats secrets of the universe to him, but his human nature and the nurturing of his mother, his oddball family, and his father figure, Yondu, prove to be strong enough influences on Quill’s morals and character and force him to reject Ego. Quill is further driven to this decision when Ego drops the bombshell that it was he who caused Meredith’s fatal brain tumour, thus dooming her and pushing Quill into an enraged defiance that sees him pull out all the stops to oppose Ego’s plan to terraform the worlds he’s seeded.

Ego is destroyed at great cost but an even greater threat looms in the Guardians’ future…

This means not only turning down the ability to construct greater things, and even life, using Ego’s cosmic power but also the virtual immortality offered by Ego’s planet; disappointed by sentient life across the galaxy, Ego realised that his destiny wasn’t to simply walk among men, but to dominate and consume them through “The Expansion”. His façade as a loveable, charismatic figure quickly gives way to a cold-hearted, self-centred parasite befitting of his name and capable of great love (for he truly loved Meredith and was tempted to give up his enterprise for her) but also intense anger. Fully capable of manipulating every element of his planet-form to his will, Ego is a monstrous, nigh-unstoppable God-like being comprised of pure energy but capable of bending matter as he sees fit to protect his brain at the core of his planet. Thanks to being part-Celestial, Quill is also able to manipulate the planet to a degree, leading to a visually impressive sequence where Rocket drills through Ego’s crust using lasers and Quill constructs a massive version of Pac-Man to go head-to-head with his father. With the Sovereign closing in and adding to the melee, Mantis strains her powers to the limit to put Ego to sleep while Rocket cobbles together a bomb to destroy Ego’s core. Although the threat is ended and Gamora and Nebula finally reconcile (and Quill and Gamora finally admit their true feelings to each other), Quill forever loses his immortality and Celestial powers…and also his true father when Yondu sacrifices himself to save Quill from Ego’s destruction and the vacuum of space for a surprisingly emotional and heart-breaking finale. However, Yondu is finally honoured by the Ravagers in death, and Kraglin Obfonteri (Sean Gunn) assumes command of his arrow and his crew; while the Guardians find dealing with a moody adolescent Groot to be a challenge in the post-credits scene, they remain unaware that Ayesha has vowed to destroy them by breeding a perfect instrument of destruction dubbed “Adam”.

The Summary:
It’s definitely true that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 holds up much better with each subsequent viewing; in many ways, it’s more of the same from the last film, but with a far greater focus on the characterisations of the titular team and the dysfunctional family dynamic they have. While it doesn’t necessarily match or expand upon the space-faring action and excitement of the first film, and may disappoint some viewers in that respect, the grounded, more personal story told here is a poignant and affecting one. Seeing Quill struggle with his heritage, his feelings for Gamora, and to hold the team together is what makes these outlandish characters so surprisingly relatable, and the banter and relationship between each member of the team is some of the most entertaining produced by the MCU. What we have here is a film that peels back the layers of one of the most obscure properties in Marvel, and the MCU, and makes even their most alien members human and vulnerable; expanding on Yondu’s character and showing how complex Rocket is as a character was a surprising highlight, as was the heart-breaking final reconciliation between Yondu and Quill. There’s plenty of amusing elements throughout the film thanks to Drax’s blunt nature and Baby Groot’s childish antics, and Kurt Russell seems to be having the time of his life being part of his big-budget production. The cosmic scope of the MVU was expanded even further with the introduction of the Celestials and laying the groundwork for the future dynamic and troubles coming to the Guardians and, while I don’t rate it as highly as the first film, that’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal to enjoy here and I’d say it’s well worth your time, especially for those who might not have been convinced by the Guardians’ characterisation in the last film and wanted to get to know these characters better.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

What did you think to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2? Were you disappointed that the film wasn’t as action-packed as the first or did you enjoy the more character-focused story? What did you think to the added emphasis on the team as a dysfunctional family? Which of the new characters introduced was your favourite? What did you think to Ego’s plot and the changes made to his character? Would you have liked to see Quill retain his cosmic powers or did you dislike that he was made part-Celestial? Which members of the team would you like to see included in the MCU later down the line? I’d love to know your opinion on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, so sign up to share them below or leave a comment on my social media, and be sure to check in next Sunday as Sci-Fi Sunday continues!

Talking Movies [Sci-Fi Sunday]: Guardians of the Galaxy


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I have decided to spend every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Talking Movies

Released: 1 August 2014
Director: James Gunn
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $232.3 million
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, and Michael Rooker

The Plot:
Abducted from Earth as a small child, Peter Quill (Pratt) grows up to become the intergalactic rogue known as “Star-Lord”. However, after stealing a mysterious orb, Quill finds himself relentlessly pursued by the war-hungry Ronan the Accuser (Pace) and forced to team up with a rag-tag group of misfits and criminals in order to oppose the Kree warlord’s plans to devastate a peace-keeping world.

The Background:
While I’m sure that the Guardians of the Galaxy had their fair share of fans before they made their debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I think it’s fair to say that the intergalactic superhero team were one of Marvel’s more obscure properties, especially compared to heavy-hitters like the Avengers. Writer Arnold Drake and the immortal Stan Lee changed Roy Thomas’s concept of super-guerrillas fighting Russians and Red China into an interplanetary team of misfits, and the team was resurrected and given their much more recognisable line-up over the years, and MCU head honcho Kevin Feige first name-dropped an adaptation of the team in 2010 as part of the MCU’s continued expansion towards more cosmic adventures. Director James Gunn won out to helm the film, which whole-heartedly embraced even the most ridiculous characters and concepts from the team’s history; the film embraced its ensemble line-up and utilised both practical and computer-generated effects to brings its bizarre characters to life. Gunn also emphasised the importance of featuring large, practical sets and bolstered the film’s humour and themes through a referential soundtrack. Guardians of the Galaxy was a phenomenal success, grossing over $772 million at the box office and proving that even Marvel’s most obscure creations could be a box office success. The film was met with an overwhelmingly positive reception; critics praised the banter and comedy, the quirky uniqueness of the film, and for bringing something new to the genre. Others were a little more critical of the film’s pace and comedic elements, but Guardians of the Galaxy’s box office success more than justified a sequel and the Guardians of the Galaxy quickly became a popular and integral part of the larger MCU.

The Review:
My knowledge of the Guardians of the Galaxy was basically non-existent when the film was first announced and released. In all my years of reading Marvel Comics, I had never once encountered the team beyond reading the issue where they encountered Cuchulain the Irish Wolfhound as part of my undergraduate studies and happening to read a story where Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk fought an early version of Groot. Thus, when I first heard of the film and saw the trailers, I was a little confused but intrigued by the concept, which reminded me of the kind of space-faring snark and adventure I’d enjoyed in Serenity (Whedon, 2005) and Star Trek (Abrams, 2009), and willing to go along with this risky venture of bringing such an obscure Marvel property to life. Although the film is unquestionably an ensemble piece and introduces many bizarre characters to the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy is anchored by Peter Quill,  a vain and self-centred space adventurer who, as a boy (Wyatt Oleff), was forced to watch his beloved mother (Laura Haddock) suffer and ultimately succumb to a cancerous tumour. Unable to bare the loss, he ran out of the hospital in his grief and was unexpectedly abducted by Quill Yondu Udonta (Rooker) of the Ravagers on the order of his mysterious father, whom his mother descried in her delirium as an “angel”. Rather than be delivered to his father, Quill was raised by Yondu as a surrogate son and taught the ways of the space pirates, growing up to become a thief and modelling himself after the film stars of his youth, such as Patrick Swayze and Harrison Ford.

Quill wishes to be as notorious as Gamora, a bad-ass warrior known as the daughter of Thanos.

However, Quill is not as notorious throughout the galaxy as he likes to think, despite having a bunch of gadgets and tech at his disposal (such as his blaster, gravity grenades, personal space helmet and rocket boots, and even his own ship, the Milano). While Quill may be a loser with delusions of grandeur, his greatest ability is convincing others to listen to his words and come together against a common goal; even though he doesn’t always have a plan (or even a percentage of a plan), he’s able to talk his newfound allies into setting aside their differences first in the name of survival and profit, and then to defend Xandar from destruction. Gamora (Saldaña) begins the film as a minion of Ronan the Accuser (Pace), on loan to him from her adopted father, the Mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin/Sean Gunn), much like her cybernetic stepsister Nebula (Karen Gillan). There’s a rivalry and animosity between the two that extends beyond simply trying to impress their father; while Gamora is a renowned and notorious warrior, she secretly plots against her father, who destroyed her people and turned her into a living weapon simply for his own amusement. She is a non-nonsense, laser-focused individual who is riled up by Quill’s inane banter and  buffoonery, but comes to find a surrogate family with her oddball team mates; as much as she hates Thanos and desires to kill him, she has a real love and pity for her Nebula, who has become cold and merciless and driven by hatred and resentment since Thanos always favoured Gamora, which inevitably leads to dramatic conflict between the two. Gamora is eventually convinced to trust Quill when he puts himself at risk not only by summoning Yondu for aid but by braving the cold, suffocating vacuum of space to save her, which also goes a long way to proving his selflessness and worthiness as a hero (however unlikely) to his newfound teammates.

Rocket, Groot, and Drax become reluctant allies after being convinced by Quill’s quick-thinking.

Rocket Racoon (Cooper/Sean Gunn) and Groot (Diesel/Krystian Godlewski) are already branded as criminals at the start of the film, but operate as independent bounty hunters who are simply trying to et rich by bringing in marks and run across Quill and Gamora while staking out Xandar for bounties. Though Rocket appears to be the brains of the operation, Groot is far from a mindless creature, despite only ever uttering “I am Groot!”; Groot is insightful, curious, and compassionate and surprisingly gentle for such a lumbering brute, and adds to the film’s humour and heart thanks to his childish nature. Rocket also has a surprising amount of depth to his character; essentially a snarky, embittered raccoon-like creature, he was subjected to horrific experiments and takes a perverse pleasure in sticking it to those in positions of authority. After being arrested by the Nova Corps and locked up in the Kyln, these four are reluctantly forced to work together since all of the other inmates immediately target them because of their association with Gamora and her association with Ronan and Thanos. No other inmate has more of a vendetta against Ronan than Drax the Destroyer (Bautista), a musclebound warrior whose family were slaughtered by Ronan for sport and who longs to kill Gamora as recompense. Drax, who comes from a race of people that take everything literally and cannot understand metaphors, is convinced to spare Gamora by the fast-talking Quill so that they can join forces to lure Ronan out and kill him. Although reluctant to team up, Drax is won over by Quill’s reputation and Rocket’s plucky adaptability, but is so focused on having his revenge against Ronan that he puts his newfound teammates at risk by summoning Ronan to Knowhere, only to be summarily humiliated in single combat with his hated foe.

Despite his potential to be a decent recurring villain, Ronan is a disappointingly forgettable antagonist.

Each of the film’s protagonists has either a personal vendetta against, or comes into conflict with, Ronan, a Kree warrior branded a terrorist as he refuses to abide by the peace treaty between his people and Xandar, home of the Nova Corps. A maniacal zealot who wishes nothing less than the power to strip Xandar of all life, he makes a deal with Thanos, to retrieve the Orb for him in return for Thanos unleashing his might against Xandar, however he’s sadly another largely lacklustre villain; even killing the Other (Alexis Denisof) and making demands of Thanos does little to impress and he’s simply a large, malevolent force for the team to rally against. He does have some notable moments, however, such as delivering a massive beatdown to Drax and laying claiming the Power Stone that lies within the Orb, thus granting him incredible, nigh-unlimited power. Unfortunately, there’s really not much to go on with him; his fanatical vendetta against Xandar make him largely unsympathetic, he does a lot of posturing for someone so feared and revered by other characters, and is easily distracted by Quill’s hilarious dance moves and undone by the titular Guardians sharing the power of the Power Stone between them and atomising him. It’s a shame, really, as I feel like Ronan could have been a decent enough recurring villain, or even a reluctant ally, of the Guardians in subsequent films (or repurposed into one of Thanos’s Black Order), but instead he’s simply built up as this unstoppable bad-ass and then done away with before he can really earn that reputation.

A number of supporting character actors bolster the film’s scope, or steal the show with their antics.

The film is bolstered by a number of supporting characters, with Yondu being the clear standout; Quill’s mentor and, essentially, adopted father, there is an animosity between the two as Yondu believes Quill is ungrateful that he wasn’t eaten by the rest of the Ravagers and Quill believes that Yondu only kept him around because he was small enough to help steal stuff. However, there relationship softens over the course of the film and Yondu goes from placing a bounty on Quill’s head and wanting him dead to helping him push back Ronan’s forces, which is good news for Quill as Yondu can command a specialised arrow with just a few piercing whistles and cut down enemies in the blink of an eye. As home to the peacekeeping Nova Corps, Xandar offers some additional faces to the film’s line up, including the exasperated Nova Prime, Irani Rael (Glenn Close), who is frustrated at Ronan’s continued attacks against her people and the reluctance of the Kree to intervene, and Nova Corpsmen such as Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly) and Denarian Garthan Saal (Quill Serafinowicz), who are both impressed and judgemental of the titular team’s notoriety and become reluctant allies of theirs for the finale. Another additional highlight of the film is the enigmatic Taneleer Tivan/The Collector (Benicio del Toro), a peculiar gatherer of oddities and knowledge who reveals the Orb’s true nature as housing an Infinity Stone and pushing the Guardians into leaving it in the care of the Nova Corps rather than selling it or allowing Ronan to lay claim to it.

The Nitty-Gritty:
All young Quill had to cope with his mother’s failing health was his music; she would compile mix tapes for him that he would listen to repeatedly to help distract him from reality and, after being kidnapped by Yondu, he was (somehow) able to keep his Walkman and tapes working by retrofitting space technology. Quill is so attached to the Walkman and his music that he delays his escape from the Klyn to retrieve it, much to Drax’s chagrin, and he finds solace in the music of Blue Suede, Redbone, and Marvin Gaye. Obviously attracted to Gamora, Quill briefly begins to win her over by letting her share his music, and he has spent his entire adult life putting off unwrapping his mother’s final gift to him, which turns out to be a new mixtape full of even more classic tracks from the seventies and the eighties.

Guardians massively expanded the scope and intricacies of the MCU’s galaxy.

Being the MCU’s first adventure to be fully set in the deepest depths of space, Guardians of the Galaxy continues to impress with is visual presentation; from the sets, props, and special effects, everything has such depth and variety to it. Xandar is slick and advanced, clean and with the best resources available, while Knowhere is a desolate, lived-in hellhole full of scum and villainy. The Milano is a beat-up mess not a million miles away from the Millennium Falcon (although it doesn’t look like the Falcon), while Ronan’s ship, the Dark Aster, is a dark and ominous vessel carving its way trough the galaxy. The Ravagers are a bunch of degenerates holed up on a huge, filthy ship and made up of a variety of representable races, and the differences between their ship and the advanced forces of the Nova Corps is vast. However, it takes the combined efforts of these unlikely allies to defend Xandar and push back Ronan using a combination of space combat, a massive energy shield that amounts to a suicide run, and breaching the Dark Aster in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Ronan. I really enjoy the visual style of the film, which quickly shows in a very short period of time that the MCU’s galaxy is full of history, technology, and races that we’ve still only begun to scratch the surface of. Knowhere is carved from the severed head of a Celestial, the Collector’s museum is stuffed full of trinkets and captives from across the vastness of space and Marvel lore, and there’s a real sense that we could see another twenty films set in MCU space and still not really understand everything about it.

Family is at the heart of Guardians as its misfits and outcasts find a purpose in the universe.

One of the most prominent themes that separates Guardians of the Galaxy from other films in the MCU is the sense of family; unlike other films in the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy was given the unenviable task of introducing a whole team of new heroes all in one film and, while many of them are analogous to their Avengers counterparts, they manage to stand out from them thanks to their individual personalities and quirks. Quill is desperate to make a name for himself as notorious outlaw Star-Lord; until now, he’s being trying to do that by stealing shit and being a disreputable rogue, but he finds his true calling as a reluctant space hero and saviour by the film’s end and finally gets his wish when Korath (Djimon Hounsou) uses his codename. Quill is also carrying a tremendous amount of guilt over never getting to say goodbye to his mother and has been running from his past ever since; while he seems to have no wish to return to Earth and find a new family in the Guardians, he clings on to the pop culture of his childhood, and it’s his love for his mother that gives him the strength to endure the Power Stone’s power in the finale. The familial themes continue with Gamora and Nebula, stepsisters who have a bitter rivalry but are reluctant to admit how much they both have in common: bother were used and abused by Thanos and both wish to see him dead, but Nebula is too blinded by her hatred and resentment to consider working alongside her sister. Drax is completely motivated by love for his lost family, whose deaths haunt him and dictate both his vendetta against Ronan and his eventual acceptance of his newfound friends.

Despite heavy losses, Ronan is defeated and the galaxy is left in the capable (?) hands of its new guardians.

This band of misfits, degenerates, and losers finally finds something worth fighting for thanks to their common goals and interests, forced to work together for survival, their interests quickly turn from profit and revenge to putting their lives on the line for a greater good when they pledge to defend Xandar from Ronan and keep the Power Stone out of his grasp. Alongside the Ravagers and the Nova Corps, the newly christened Guardians of the Galaxy fend off the likes of Korath and Ronan’s Necrocraft in a co-ordinated attempt to kill Ronan. Unfortunately, Ronan embeds the Power Stone into his Warhammer, obliterating Saal and many of the Nova Corps and easily shrugging off Rocket’s specially made missile. Outmatched by the empowered Ronan, the Guardians are only granted a reprieve when Rocket punches a whole in the Dark Aster sending it crashing down to Xandar, and they’re only saved by the selfless and poignant sacrifice of Groot, who shields his newfound family using his own body. Thanks to the Power Stone, Ronan also survives the crash, but is so busy making speeches that he probably would have ben undone even without Quill’s distracting him with his dance moves. With Ronan’s Warhammer destroyed, Quill lays claim to the Power Stone, but its sheer destructive power threatens to teat him apart; memories of his mother give him the strength to hold back the damage and link hands with his newfound friends, who share the burden of the Infinity Stone’s power and allow them to triumph over Ronan. For their efforts, Quill makes amends with Yondu (despite again cheating him out of the Orb’s bounty, and Yondu taking with him the truth of Quill’s true parentage). The Nova Corps repair the Milano and wipe away the Guardians’ criminal records, and the head out into the galaxy to cause more mischief.

The Summary:
I am continuously impressed by Guardians of the Galaxy; I was pleasantly surprised the first time I saw it and, even now, it stands out as one of the most unique and entertaining entries in the MCU. Essentially a space adventure, the film has a visual style and humour that really helps it stand out from other films in the MCU. The film does a fantastic job of extending the scope of the MCU beyond Earth and really showing how much variety, lore, and different technology, races, and conflicts exist out in the depths of space. Tying everything together is, of course, the titular team themselves; reminiscent of their Avengers counterparts (a man out of time, a warrior female, a snarky mechanic, a monstrous brute, and an oddball meathead), the Guardians shine trough their unique characteristics and the sense of loss that drives them. Each has a past, with many of them having committed unspeakable crimes prior to the film, and is motivated by a desire to find a sense of belonging, put to rest their demons, and discover their purpose in the wide, dangerous galaxy. Of course, to begin with, none of them would ever really admit to this and they’re more motivated by profit or revenge, but being forced together turns out to be the best thing for this band of misfits and assholes as they’re able to put their egos, pride, and selfish desires to come together for a greater good. It’s not easy debuting an ensemble team in one film, but Guardians of the Galaxy is fantastically paced and gives everyone a chance to shine; even supporting characters like Yondu and Nebula get a decent amount to do and, while Ronan is squandered as a villain, the overall package shines just as brightly now as it did when I first saw it and I remember coming away from Guardians of the Galaxy extremely excited for the future of the MCU, which looked to be near-limitless at the time.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Are you a fan of Guardians of the Galaxy? Which of the characters was your favourite? Were you disappointed that the film didn’t feature the original version of the team, or a different line-up? What did you think to the MCU expanding its scope deep into space and with such an obscure property? Were you also disappointed with Ronan, or does he rank quite high in your list of MCU villains? What did you think to the hints towards the full scope of the Infinity Stones and the wider MCU peppered throughout the film? Did you enjoy the changes the film made to characters like Drax and the Nova Corps? Which members of the team would you like to see included in the MCU later down the line? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy, so please sign up to share them down below or leave a comment on my social media, and be sure to check in next Sunday for my review of the sequel as Sci-Fi Sunday continues!

Back Issues [Sci-Fi Sunday]: Marvel Super-Heroes! #18


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’ll be spending every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Story Title: “Guardians of the Galaxy! Earth Shall Overcome!”
Published: January 1969
Writer: Arnold Drake
Artist: Gene Colan

The Background:
Nowadays, Marvel Comics’ Guardians of the Galaxy are quite a well-known team of reprobates thanks to their inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); when Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014) was produced, it’s fair to say that the team (and the concept) was relatively obscure compared to other Marvel heavy-hitters like the Avengers and Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Fans of the films and the MCU may be surprised to learn that the cosmic team was quite different when they first debuted in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes!, a Marvel spin-off title that told standalone side-stories and was responsible for debuting many of the publications supporting characters. The concept began life as an idea by writer and editor Roy Thomas about super-guerrillas fighting against Russians and Red Chinese that was altered into an interplanetary situation by writer Arnold Drake and the legendary Stan Lee. Despite strong sales of the team’s debut issue, the Guardians of the Galaxy remained dormant for about five years; eventually, though, the team earned their own solo series and underwent numerous alterations over the years before evolving into something resembling the team dynamic reflected in the MCU and it all began with this bizarre space adventure about a team of misfits from the year 3007.

The Review:
As mentioned at the end there, our story opens in the far-off future of 3007 to find the Earth, and dozens of other planets, united as the United Lands of Earth Federation (U.L.E.). However, conflict is still rife throughout the various star systems of the galaxy and it is into this squall that we are introduced to Charlie-27, a stout, semi-cybernetic inhabitant of Jupiter who is finally returning home after six months of “solitary space-militia duty”. Expecting a big parade for returning as a conquering hero, Charlie-27 is confused to find the immediate area deserted and lifeless except for a contingent of the nefarious Badoon, a reptilian race of warmongers who have overrun the entire planet and captured its inhabitants, including Charlie-27’s father. After disposing of a couple of Badoon using his massive bulk, Charlie-27 follows a prison transport and finds his fellow Jovians are being forced to mine “high-intensity Harkovite”, a substance that will cause them all to die of radiation poisoning within five days.

The crystal-bodied Martinex helps Charlie-27 escapes the Badoon forces who have over-run Pluto.

Realising that it is suicide to take on the invading Badoon forces alone, Charlie-27 desperately dives into a teleporter and randomly arrives on Pluto hoping to recruit an army to aid his cause and finding the ice-planet equally empty of life an, d overrun by the Badoon. Set upon by a Saturn Hound-Hawk, Charlie-27 is rescued by Martinex, a Pluvian man comprised entirely of a crystal-like substance. Though Maritinex harbours resentment to people like Charlie-27, who refer to him and his kind by the derogatory term “Rock Head” despite both races being descended from Earthman, Martinex catches the Jovian up with event son Pluto and uses a radio transmitter to cause a distraction that allows them to take a Tele-Train to Earth. Like Jupiter and Pluto, however, Earth has been enslaved by the Badoon; Drang, the Badoon supreme commander, is overjoyed to find his men has captured Major Vance Astro, the so-called “Thousand-Year-Old Man” who was the first Earthman to visit the stars. Curious to learn his story, Drang subjects Astro to a painful Memory Probe that quickly recaps how he came to be in the year 3007: back in 1988, Earth had established a small Moon colony and had started making excursions to Mars and Vance volunteered to be cryogenically frozen for a thousand years in a bid to explore beyond the reach of Earth’s solar system. Awakening a thousand years later, Vance was forced to remain forever garbed in a copper foil wrapping lest his centuries of slumber catch up to him and found his trip was ultimately futile as humanity learned to travel faster than light in the intervening years.

After a brief misunderstanding, the four misfits join forces against the Badoon as the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Thanks to his unique knowledge and experiences, Vance is spared the Badoon’s usual slave disk and seemingly agrees to aid Drang’s dreams of conquest. However, when Drang puts Vance’s loyalty to the test by having him execute his comrade, Yondu Udonta, Vance reveals it was all a ploy to reunite his blue-skinned friend with his special bow-and-arrow, which Yondu is able to control using whistles to take out Drang’s forces and allow them to escape. Vance and Yondu immediately run into Charlie-27 and Martinex, with each duo mistaking the other for an enemy; a fight between the two teams breaks out, in which Martinex showcases his ability to freeze air molecules and Vance reveals that he has (somehow…) acquired psychic powers, but they are soon interrupted by their actual enemy, the Badoon. United against a common foe, the group dispatch the Badoon guards and teleport themselves to New New York, determined to find the rumoured free colony and free the Earth from Badoon enslavement as the Guardians of the Galaxy.

The Summary:
When I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy, I was intrigued by the presentation of the film, which gave off vibes of Firefly (2002)/Serenity (Whedon, 2005) and the J. J. Abrams Star Trek films (2009; 2013), I knew absolutely nothing about the characters, the team, or the concept beyond a very rudimentary familiarity with the likes of Drax the Destroyer, Gamora, and Nebula thanks to having read The Infinity Gauntlet (Starlin, et al, 1991). No doubt to capitalise on the release and success of the first film, Marvel released a collection of Guardians of the Galaxy stories as part of their “Marvel Platinum” range of graphic novels and this is primarily where my experience of the comic book versions of the team comes from. Reading the Guardians’ debut issue is a bit jarring for anyone who is a fan of their MCU counterparts; the only character that carries over to the films is Yondu, here characterised as little more than a simpleton rather than the leader of a band of space pirates. There’s no Peter Quill/Star-Lord, no Drax, Rocket Raccoon, or Groot and rather than being a band of well-meaning reprobates, the original Guardians of the Galaxy are a rag-tag collection of oddballs united by a common cause.

This is a very different team of Guardians than you may be used to…

Each of the Guardians is the last of their kind either due to slavery or the slow passage of time and are very bold, independent characters…with the exception of Yondu, who is denied any kind of in-depth backstory and whose character is reduced to a couple of throw-away lines from Vance. Aesthetically, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy! Earth Shall Overcome!” is a bit of a mess; taking place in the far future, we find that colonisation has extended far into our solar system and rendered even gas giants like Jupiter entirely habitable but evolution has also caused Earthlings to adapt in radical ways to survive in their new environments. A lot of the backgrounds and the comic’s more cosmic-trappings are very reminiscent of the works of Jack Kirby but, while this is very fitting, it does make for quite a cluttered and messy presentation. The issue has its work cut out for it by introducing four brand-new characters in about thirty pages of story, something I find early Marvel Comics often struggled with, and while there are some interesting elements to each character (Charlie-27 seems to be going for a self-entitled righteousness, Martinex hints at possibly being racially targeted, Yondu is a monosyllabic grunt, and Vance has his whole, very rushed, “man out of time” thing going on), I can’t really say that I was massively blown away by either their characterisation or their abilities (which are, for the most part, vaguely defined).

The Badoon are a major invasion force for the fledgling Guardians to unite against.

I’m not massively familiar with the Badoon; from what I can tell, this story wasn’t their first appearance but they really don’t seem to be that much different from other monstrous, semi-humanoid galactic conquers like the Free and the Skrull (despite, obviously not having shape-shifting powers). As a villainous force to unite against, they’re relatively unremarkable; while we can assume that they’re a formidable force since they have completely enslaved Jupiter, Pluto, and the Earth, Drang’s forces crumble like paper whenever they engage with the Guardians. Still, they have the numbers advantage, which is a great way to show that even a veteran like Charlie-27 knows when to fight and when to flee, and it’s pretty clear that the main aim of this issue was to bring together these misfits to continue telling stories of their struggle against the Badoon in subsequent issues. Still, as interesting as it is to see how the Guardians first came about the Yondu’s wildly different initial characterisation, there’s not really a whole hell of a lot to really say about this first Guardians tale; this isn’t the team that’s been popularised in the decades since, inevitably the writing and presentation is a product of its time, and the art isn’t particularly engaging or eye-catching (or even good, at times) so this is more of a quaint look at the Guardians’ humble beginnings rather than a bombastic showcase of what the team is truly capable of and probably has more appeal to die-hard fans of Marvel’s cosmic stories than the more casual Guardians readers like myself.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Have you ever read the Guardians of the Galaxy’s debut story? If so, what did you think to it, especially compared to the various interactions of the team that have come since? What did you think to the idea of setting the story in the year 3007 and of the Badoon having conquered the solar system? Which of the original four characters was your favourite? Which version of the team is your favourite and why? Are you a fan of the Guardians of the Galaxy comics and, if so, did you like the MCU’s interpretations of the characters and concepts? Would you like to see the original team get a larger focus in the MCU someday? Share your thoughts on the Guardians of the Galaxy in the comments below and check in again next Sunday for more sci-fi content.

Back Issues [Sci-Fi Sunday]: The Silver Surfer #1


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’ve been spending every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Story Title: “The Origin of the Silver Surfer!”
Published: August 1968
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: John Buscema

The Background:
In 1961, comic readers everywhere were introduced to Marvel’s “First Family” of superheroes, the Fantastic Four. Doctor Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic, Susan Storm/The Invisible Girl, Johnny Storm/The Human Torch, and Ben Grimm/The Thing were characterised as a dysfunctional, but loving, family of superpowered scientists and adventurers and their creation was not only the first collaboration between the legendary Stan Lee and Jack Kirby but also the beginning of the unique “Marvel Method” of writer and artist collaboration. In 1966, the team faced their greatest challenge yet when they faced the God-like Galactus, who came to Earth looking to devourer it and satiate his unending hunger for worlds. When Kirby turned in his artwork for the story, he included a brand-new character that had not been part of his previous discussions with Lee; Kirby crafted a herald for the all-mighty being and, tired of drawing spaceships, had this silvery being ride a surfboard instead. Though initially hesitant, Lee ran with the idea and, following the conclusion of the Galactus arc, the Silver Surfer received his own self-titled series in 1968 that, while short-lived, was one of Lee’s favourites to work on. Since then, the Silver Surfer has appeared consistently within Marvel Comics; he’s been a part of the Defenders, joined and fought against his old master numerous times, and featured not only in the Fantastic Four’s animated and live-action adaptations but also received his own self-titled cartoon that ran for thirteen episodes in 1998.

The Review:
When he was introduced in the pages of The Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer was a mysterious and enigmatic cosmic entity about whom we learn very little; he was painted as Galactus’ obedient herald and servant, wielded vast and ill-defined cosmic powers, and was compelled to defy his master’s intentions to consume the Earth after a desperate plea from Alicia Masters. Having grown to care for the fate of the human race, if primarily out of pity, the price for the Silver Surfer’s defiance was to be forever (well, obviously not forever as nothing in comics is ever “forever”) banished to Earth by his master and, accordingly, The Silver Surfer #1 finds the cosmic entity still bound to the world he chose to save.

The conflict he encounters on Earth leads the troubled Silver Surfer to recall his own home world.

In the opening pages, the Silver Surfer immediately acts to save the life of Colonel Jameson, whose space capsule crash-lands in the ocean depths. Of course, for the Sentinel of the Spaceways, things such as water, air, and metal are of little concern and the Silver Surfer is easily able to dive beneath the ocean and rescue the Colonel. Despite returning the astronaut to a military vehicle, the Silver Surfer finds himself hounded by fighter jets and, similarly, as he streaks across the skies of the planet he now calls home, the Surfer is attacked by missiles and encounters only discord and war. Lamenting the foolishness of men that would seek to harm the lush and fertile world that has captured his heart and imagination, the Silver Surfer is compelled to recall his own home world, a planet far across the galaxy called Zenn-La which, unlike the Earth, had long ago eradicated war, crime, and disease after ten thousand centuries of conflict. Back then, the Silver Surfer was known as Norrin Radd and was simply a man who, though he lived in a virtual nirvana, was left despondent that his people and world no longer had any drive or ambition to achieve anything new. Having inherited the peace and advanced technology of their forefathers, Zenn-La’s inhabitants are largely happy to indulge in the luxuries and benefits of these; they have lost the spirit of adventure and seem content to simply allow technology to fulfil tasks they would have once sweated over.

Memories of his distant and recent past haunt the Silver Surfer and cause him much strife.

Restless and eager to understand why only he seems to find their utopia so stagnating, Norrin reviews the history of his world through advanced virtual reality and discovers that an age of enlightenment put an end to all conflict and that his people ventured far out into the universe before eventually settling on staying put on their home world. Back in the present, the Silver Surfer comments that the Earth is at a similar crossroads between destroying themselves through war and being united in a common cause; even while being randomly attacked by savage yetis, the Silver Surfer laments the innate sense of distrust and fear that touches the hearts of men and turns even beasts such as those (and Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk, whom the Silver Surfer once hoped would be an ally as they have both been unfairly ostracised by humanity) into hate-filled barbarians. Similarly the Silver Surfer recalls how Doctor Victor Von Doom/Doctor Doom easily duped him and briefly stole the mysterious “Power Cosmic” from him, an event that caused the Silver Surfer to never again trust another human lest their selfish and manipulative nature get the better of him.

Rejecting his society’s complacency, and despair, Norrin heads out to confront their invader.

Stumbling upon the ruins of an ancient civilisation now forever lost to the ravages of time and the elements, the troubled Silver Surfer is again haunted by his lost world, and his beloved Shalla Bal. Despite Shalla’s plea that he turn his focus back to the wonders offered by Zenn-La, Norrin finds himself alone in a world where indulgence is the norm, knowledge is simply gifted rather than earned, and the citizens want for nothing. However, Norrin’s lamentations and concerns for the stagnation of his people are interrupted when a gigantic spacecraft breaches the planet’s “nuclear defences” and the people are warned to prepare for an invasion; while Shalla weeps at the prospect of war, especially as Zenn-La has no space fleet or weapons to speak of, Norrin practically relishes the idea of such an event forcing his complacent people into action. With the people giving in to panic, Zenn-La’s computer system decrees only one course of action: the deployment of the “Weapon Supreme”, a solution that literally rips the neighbouring planetoids from their orbits and hurls them at the orbiting craft with such force that it devastates the entire infrastructure of Zenn-La. This devastating solution is ultimately futile, however, as the invading probe simply slipped into the fourth dimension to avoid being damaged and, having decimated their world and with no hope left, the entire planet gives in to despair. All, save for Norrin Rad who, fuelled by the spirits of his ancestors, urges the remnants of Zenn-La’s scientific community to craft him a ship so that he can commune with the craft as he refuses to lose hope.

To spare his world, Norrin volunteers to become Galactus’ herald and is reborn as the Silver Surfer!

Drawn within the mighty spherical craft, Norrin is overwhelmed by his insignificance next to the craft’s size and technology and is then driven to his knees by a blast from the ship’s owner and operator, all-mighty Galactus! Though he has no desire to, and takes no pleasure in, destroying Norrin’s people, the World Devourer is adamant that his quest cannot be assuaged as he is compelled to feed his unending hunger lest he be consumed by it. Harbouring no malice or ill-will, Galactus compares his mission to that of a man casually stepping on an ant hill and states that it simply is, but Norrin pleads with him to spare Zenn-La and instead feed upon a world devoid of sentient life. When Galactus laments that he has not the time to seek out such a world since even he is but one being, Norrin offers to become the World Devourer’s herald, to seek out lifeless worlds in order to appease Galactus’ hunger, and gladly sacrifices his personal well-being in order to be transformed by the all-mighty’s vast cosmic powers. Reborn as the Silver Surfer, Norrin is rendered immune to the ravages of space and gifted his trademark board with which he can swiftly travel the stars to seek out ne worlds for Galactus to consume. Thrilled to have a lifetime of adventure and exploration amongst the stars finally within his grasp, Norrin bids an emotional farewell to his beloved and departs Zenn-La fully committed to serve his new master, alone and haunted by Shalla’s face in every star and sun he comes across. The Silver Surfer finds his pain eased as he successfully spares worlds teeming with sentiment life from Galactus’ ravages but had no choice but to lead his master to Earth as the gnawing hunger grew unbearable for the God-like being. And it is there that his story ends, with Galactus stoically removing his herald’s ability to travel amongst the stars and the man once known as Norrin Rad left exiled to another world he hoped to spare from destruction.

The Summary:
“The Origin of the Silver Surfer!” is indicative of many of Marvel’s tales from back in the day; featuring a number of references, flashbacks, and cameos, the story is as much a recap of the Silver Surfer’s prior appearances as it is an exploration of his beginnings. Crucially, though, it’s not just the Silver Surfer’s unconquerable cosmic powers that separate him from other Marvel superheroes; the character is perhaps the most loquacious of Stan Lee’s comics characters (matched only by the verbose Dr. Doom) and probably the second most conflicted character he’s created next to Peter Parker/Spider-Man. But, whereas Dr. Doom boasts only of himself and his needs and Peter laments such day-to-day problems as money and relationships, the Silver Surfer’s concerns are with being denied access to the vast cosmic skies and observing the sheer animosity that threatens to consume his adopted world.

Norrin is one of the most loquacious and complex characters in Marvel’s line-up.

The Silver Surfer’s previous life as Norrin Rad was hardly a carefree existence either; while the inhabitants of Zenn-La were perfectly content to life stagnated lives where they wanted for nothing and had sacrificed ambition and advancement for peace and tranquillity, Norrin finds himself concerned for the long-term welfare and overall development of their society since they no longer need to apply themselves to do or achieve anything. Everything around them was left to them by previous generations; knowledge is simply downloaded directly into their brains and all of the thinking and decisions are made by advanced computer systems and a puppet government. Where once Zenn-La had fought tooth and nail for survival and reached out beyond the universe, now they were content to simply indulge their whims and life lives free from the burden of struggle or failure. Amongst the entire planet, only Norrin feels as though the world has lost its way and should strive for more and thus it is only he who has the temerity to face their would-be conqueror head on.

Galactus, though destructive, does not delight in his need to feast on worlds.

As is generally always the case, Galactus is presented as a force of nature; something unconquerable and inexorable and a force beyond any in the known universe, and certainly beyond the peaceful people of Zenn-La. Ironically, it isn’t Galactus that leaves Zenn-La in ruins but the people themselves as they decimate their world by tearing small planets out of their very orbit, making them, for all their enlightenment, no better than the World Devourer himself. Indeed, while Galactus doesn’t act out of any malice or emotion, the same can’t be said for Zenn-La’s people, who first react in violent fear and panic and then give in to despair entirely; Galactus takes no pleasure in his destructive existence but must consume worlds to survive and even he is willing to listen to reason. Galactus makes Norrin his herald not because he is won over by his desperate plea but simply because it makes logical sense for him to have a herald out there finding new worlds for him to consume and to spare lives from his nature because, while Galactus does consume inhabited worlds, it’s only because he is forced to by his great hunger.

Delving into the Silver Surfer’s past adds much more emotional depth to his decision to aid Earth.

In the end, this was a poignant and fascinated story; the Silver Surfer makes for one of the most emotionally complex and layered characters in all of Marveldom, especially in his earliest appearances where he is both captivated by the Earth and saddened by our propensity towards destruction and violence. Seeing Norrin Rad as a man dissatisfied with utopia and craving the thrill of scientific and societal advancement was an interesting twist and witnessing him sacrificing his very being and all he knows in order to spare his people only adds further context to the Silver Surfer’s somewhat abrupt decision to aid humanity in his debut arc. The comic is beautifully rendered by John Buscema, who perfectly evoked the grandeur of Jack Kirby’s artwork to deliver wondrous and imaginative technology and surroundings, to say nothing of his awesome rendition of the towering Galactus, who fittingly appears both fearsome and God-like in his regality. While I haven’t actually read a great deal of the Silver Surfer and can understand people having trouble connecting with him due to his near-limitless powers, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the Sentinel of the Spaceways, especially his early appearances where he was exiled to Earth, and found this to be a captivating glimpse into his unique backstory.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Have you ever read Silver Surfer #1? If so, what did you think to the title character’s origin story? What did you think to Zenn-La and Norrin Rad’s troubles with his society? What did you think to Norrin Rad’s sacrifice to save his people? What are your thoughts on Galactus, his motivations and his characterisation? Are you a fan of the Silver Surfer? If so, what is it about him you like and, if not, why is that? Who would you like to see portray the Silver Surfer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Whatever you think about the Silver Surfer, leave a comment below and thanks for joining me for Sci-Fi Sunday.

Screen Time [Sci-Fi Sunday]: The Outer Limits (1995): “The New Breed” (S1: E16)


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’m dedicated every Sunday of January to celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Season One, Episode 16: “The New Breed”

Air Date: 9 July 1995
Director: Mario Azzopardi
US Network: Showtime
UK Network: BBC 2
Stars: Richard Thomas, Peter Outerbridge, and Tammy Isbell

The Background:
I never watched The Twilight Zone (1959 to 1964; 1985 to 1989) as a kid; growing up, I was limited to the then-four channels of terrestrial television so my sci-fi/horror anthology series of choice was The Outer Limits (1995 to 2002). Itself a revival of the original 1960s show, The Outer Limits was an award-winning anthology series that was originally broadcast here in the United Kingdom on BBC 2; every week, a new tale would unfold, usually revolving around aliens, rogue artificial intelligence, or other sci-fi, horror, or fantastical stories, though there were also a number of recurring themes, characters, and even semi-sequential stories to be found in the show’s long history. Considering my nostalgia and affection for the series, it is gratifying to see others also have a fondness for the show and I’ll be extremely interested to see if the planned revivals ever come to pass.

The Plot:
Doctor Stephen Ledbetter (Thomas) makes a technological and medical breakthrough when he creates a type of tiny machine, known as nanobots, capable of curing any disease or imperfections in the human body. However, when his dying friend, Doctor Andy Groenig (Outerbridge), injects himself with the experimental nanobots, his body starts to hideously mutate!

The Review:
“The New Breed” focuses on Dr. Stephen Ledbetter, a genius in nanotechnology whose research spell the potential end for life-threatening cancerous disease by rewriting the cellular structure of the bodies they are introduced to and removing malignant or destructive elements. A somewhat condescending and self-aggrandising scientist, Stephen fully believes in his work and is extremely proud of the level of intricacy and brilliance that has gone into their creation. However, like many phenomenally intelligent individuals, he is somewhat blinded by how miraculous his nanobots are, which are smart enough to replicate individually and operate independently to, in his words, improve the “flawed man”.

Stephen’s breakthrough nanobots spell the end for cancer but he is frustrated by regulations.

His grandiose claims to have surpassed God aggravate his colleague, Doctor Norman Meritt (L. Harvey Gold), who is not in the least bit amused at Stephen’s attitude and flamboyant disrespect for professional conduct. Meritt stresses that Stephen needs to play by the rules since the last time he bent them in his favour, he almost lost his job and caused the entire department to be shut down. As it’s the only way for his nanobots to see the light of day, Stephen begrudgingly agrees to play the game for the sake of his grant and the Board of Trustees despite being frustrated at having to wait for approval to begin live animal testing.

Andy’s whole world comes crashing down when he receives news of a malicious cancer.

His research and the potential of the nanobots excites Stephen’s friend and colleague, Dr. Andy Groenig, a far less egotistical and driven scientist who is not only dating Stephen’s younger sister, Judy Hudson (Isbell), but is engaged to marry her in a month’s time. Things are looking good for Andy, who also just got tenure, and Stephen is overjoyed at his good fortunes (showing hat, beneath his arrogance, there is a loyal and trustworthy human being). However, when he pays a visit to Doctor Katzman (Veena Sood) regarding an lingering pain in his back, Andy’s world comes crashing down at the news that he’s suffering from a malignant form of pelvic cancer that will either kill him in about a year or leave him without his lower limbs through surgery. Desperate for a solution to this horrifying news, he presses Stephen for more information about his nanobots and is dismayed to find that the Board would never allow human testing without stringent tests, not even on a willing volunteer, for fear of a potential lawsuit.

Desperate for a solution, Andy injects himself with the nanobots and is miraculously healed.

With Judy already enthusiastically planning out the rest of their married lives, and with literally nothing left to lose, Andy breaks into Stephen’s lab during the night and exposes injects the nanobots into his body. The results are almost instantaneous; within three days, his tumour has significantly reduced, giving him a whole new lease on life and virality. The benefits don’t end there, either, as Andy awakens one morning to find that he no longer requires glasses to improve his vision. Stephen, however, is aghast at Andy’s recklessness; despite his bold claims from earlier, Stephen is enraged that Andy would put himself and both of their lives and careers at risk. Afraid of what the nanobots could potentially do to Andy, Stephen immediately demands that they be shut off but, when Andy vehemently refuses, they reach a compromise and, together, run further tests to record the benefits and behaviours of the nanobots on the proviso that they deactivate the second anything starts to go wrong. Thanks to the nanobots, Andy is able to hold his breath underwater for at least seven minutes, read even near microscopic test from a greater distance, physically push himself faster and harder than ever before, and heal from horrific injuries in seconds.

Andy’s stamina overwhelms Judy but the nanobots soon take their programming a bit too far…

A sentimental goof, Andy is extremely grateful to the nanobots, and Stephen, for saving  and improving his life; however, his increased stamina and virility begin to cause concern for Judy, whom he inadvertently hurts during sex. Concerned that he’s on drugs, Judy is nevertheless exhausted and somewhat fearful of his newfound virility and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, Andy awakens to find that the nanobots have “gifted” him with a set of gills to allow him to freely breath underwater. Both enthralled and horrified at this development, Stephen immediately attempts to expel the nanobots from Andy’s body; however, his attempts are met with unexpected failure as the nanobots believe that the “program run [is] not complete”. Consequently, Andy is absolutely horrified to find that the nanobots have grown him a new pair of eyes on the back of his head!

Andy chooses death to end his suffering but leaves a terrifying legacy behind…

Unable to shut the nanobots down in a conventional way, Stephen attempts to short them out using high-intensity electric shocks; unfortunately, though, he is again frustrated by failure and reluctant to subject Andy to further electric shocks out of fear of killing him. Andy, however, begins to think that dying wouldn’t be so bad at this point and his fears and desperation only grow as his hearing becomes superhumanly acute and the nanobots shield his body from both external and internal threats with an array of jellyfish-like nematocysts and additional ribs, respectively, in a conscious effort to stop Stephen’s efforts to drive them from Andy’s body. Angered at his current physical condition, Andy is equally dismayed at his inability to die as, no matter what either of them do, the nanobots continue to revive Andy. With no other option, the two sorrowfully agree to bombard Andy to a lethal dose of electrical current to destroy both him and the nanobots; heartbroken and dejected, Stephen destroys all evidence of the event, and his research, in a fire but the episode ends suggesting that Andy has passed at least a few of the nanobots on the Judy during their earlier coitus.

The Summary:
As the narrator (or “Control Voice”; Kevin Conway) sombrely tells us: “Man has long worked to stave off the diseases that can ravage us, but what can happen when the cure grows more fearsome than the disease? Over millions of years man has become the very paragon of animals, but we must take care not to alter what nature has taken so long to forge…or risk being burned by the very fires of creation”. The lesson here, as with many episodes of The Outer Limits and similar tales of man trying to either play God or expand the limits of scientific research, is to exercise caution, restraint, and humility when dabbling in the fantastical and the unknown.

A miraculous technology soon turns terrifying in this cautionary tale.

I’ve watched a lot of movies and television over the years, and many episodes of The Outer Limits, but “The New Breed” always stuck with me as a moving, terrifying, and poignant tale of the potential, and dangers, of science. Andy is facing his very real, and painful, death at the beginning of the episode and, as he puts it, “sells [his] soul” for another chance at life; this turns out to be more than apt as the nanobots very quickly begin to take their programming way too far. Although Andy assures Stephen on numerous occasions that he doesn’t blame him (as in Stephen) for the events of the episode, it can’t really be argued that the tests Stephen subjected Andy to were directly responsible for his gills, eyes, and other freakish enhancements. Had Andy not been so overjoyed at getting his second chance and so afraid for his cancer returning, Stephen may have been able to deactivate the nanobots before they set about further “improving” Andy’s physical condition but, instead, we’re left with a cautionary tale of the limits of science.

“The New Breed” is full of disturbing imagery and warnings of the potential danger of science.

These lessons, while commonplace in many similar science-fiction stories and which can be traced all the way back to the likes of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (Shelley, 1818), are presented in a fascinating and terrifying way in “The New Breed”, one which left an indelible impression on me as a child. The shot of Andy’s new pair of eyes slowly, ominously blinking open through weeping pus alone is a nightmarish visual, as are the unnerving, gaping gills on his neck and the disgusting, twisted stingers that eventually cover his entire body and seem to be cocooning him for a further transformation by the end of the episode. Another comparison I could easily make would be to The Fly (Cronenberg, 1986), which is a similar tale of science at first improving a man and then quickly mutating him into some more gruesome and monstrous and my unapologetic fondness for that film may very explain my affection for “The New Breed”. Still, the episode remains as captivating and enthralling as ever (thanks also, it has to be said, to nostalgia and some intense sex scenes) and it’s just one of many strong episodes of the Outer Limits revival that I would point any self-respecting sci-fi fan to without hesitation.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Have you ever seen “The New Breed” or the 1995 revival of The Outer Limits? If so, what did you think to it and what were some of your favourite episodes? Did you enjoy the steady, gruesome escalation of the nanobots’ effect on Andy’s body? What are some other cautionary tales regarding science that you enjoy? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below and be sure to check back in next week for the conclusion of Sci-Fi Sunday.

Talking Movies [Sci-Fi Sunday]: Ant-Man


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’m spending every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Talking Movies

Released: 17 July 2015
Director: Peyton Reed
Distributor:
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $130 to 169.3 million
Stars:
Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Abby Ryder Fortson, and Michael Douglas

The Plot:
Petty thief Scott Lang (Rudd) struggles to adapt to the straight and narrow after being released from prison. Determined to prove himself to his young daughter, Cassie (Fortson), he turns to stealing once more and unwittingly finds himself in possession of Doctor Hank Pym’s (Douglas) incredible Ant-Man suit. Gifted with a real opportunity to turn his life around, Scott trains with Pym and his stern daughter, Hope van Dyne (Lilly), to master the suit’s ability to shrink and control ants in order to keep the conniving Doctor Darren Cross (Stoll) from perverting Pym’s life’s work into a weapon.

The Background:
When comic book readers were first introduced to Hank Pym/Ant-Man, he wasn’t quite the garishly-costumed Avenger would later help form the Avengers; instead, he was merely a scientist featured in the pages of Tales to Astonish #27. The creation of the legendary duo Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character was re-envisioned as a superhero eight issues later and would go on to be a consistent, if unstable, character in the pages of Marvel Comics. Crucially, however, Pym wasn’t the only character to take up the mantle of Ant-Man; one of Pym’s most notable successors was Scott Lang, a reformed criminal created by David Michelinie, Bob Layton, and John Byrne, who took over the role in 1979. Both Hank Pym and Scott Lang had featured in Marvel cartoons and videogames since their debut, but development of a live-action film can be traced back to the 1980s, when development was scuppered by a similar concept, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (Johnston, 1989). The project finally started gaining traction in the early-2000s when Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish wrote a film treatment focusing on the Scott Lang version of the character for Artisan Entertainment, who held the film rights at the time.

Ant-Man is a mantle worn by many characters and the film took over ten years to develop.

Over the next ten years, the film was continually showcased and teased; the character was bumped from the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and eventually slotted in to debut in Phase Three. Sadly, Wright eventually left the project in 2014, right after both casting and the script had been finalised, due to “creative differences” between himself and Marvel Studios. Peyton Reed soon succeeded Wright as the director and worked closely with star Paul Rudd (who underwent a physical transformation for the role) and writer Adam McKay to rework and expand upon Wright’s script. Double Negative and Industrial Light & Magic handled the film’s shrinking effects, with star Corey Stoll sporting a motion capture suit to bring the villainous Yellowjacket to life. Finally, after being in development for over ten years, Ant-Man released to a massive $519.3 million worldwide gross; the reviews were equally impressive, with critics praising the film’s family dynamic, performances, and the unique blend of humour and action that set it apart from other MCU films. The film performed so well that a sequel was produced in 2018, and a third instalment is due for release later this year, and only served to further bolster Rudd’s undeniable charm and charisma.

The Review:
Ant-Man is one of those Marvel superheroes that I’ve never really had strong feelings about one way or another. Like many, I mostly know the character as being an emotionally and psychologically unstable individual who occasionally abuses his wife and has inferiority complexes, though I primarily associate the character with one of the Avengers’ greatest villains, Ultron. Consequently, while Ant-Man and the Wasp were instrumental in the formation of the Avengers in the comics, I can’t say that I was too disappointed to see the character miss out on the big screen debut of Marvel’s premier superhero team. However, by the time Ant-Man was produced, the MCU was really ramping up its scope; the Avengers had formed, we’d seen Gods and bleeding-edge technology and even space adventures and, while Ant-Man probably would have fit in nicely during the MCU’s first phase (although it probably would have been deemed too derivative), it was actually a surprising breath of fresh air to come back down to “ground level”, so to speak, before really getting balls deep into the Infinity Saga.

Years after Hank quit S.H.I.E.L.D., ex-con Scott tries his best to set a good example and rebuild his life.

Ant-Man opens up in 1989 and by showcasing just how far de-aging technology has come as Hank Pym (digitally restored to match the time period) angrily confronts Howard Stark (John Slattery), Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell made up to look noticeably older), and Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan) after discovering the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division’s (S.H.I.E.L.D.) attempts to replicate his Hank Particle technology. While Peggy is shocked at the revelation, Howard tries to impress upon Hank that his research could be put to far better, greater use than simply fuelling his efforts as Ant-Man. Already annoyed at being reduced to a glorified errand boy, Hank is pushed to the edge when Carson mocks his anger and brings up his late-wife, Janet, leading to Hank lashing out, breaking Carson’s nose, and quitting S.H.I.E.L.D. Although Howard pleads with Hank to reconsider, Hank storms out, making an enemy of Carson in the process and establishing a few key plot points for the movie: Hank doesn’t trust S.H.I.E.L.D., seems a little unstable, and is highly protective of his research. The film then jumps ahead to then-present day to introduce us to Scott Lang right as he’s being released from prison; a former VistaCorp systems engineer, Scott is a veritable genius, holding a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering but is reduced to working a menial job at Baskins-Robbins in his desperate attempt to stay on the straight and narrow and set a good example for his young daughter, Cassie (Fortson). It’s crucial to note that that Scott wasn’t arrested for anything violent or threatening (indeed, he states that he hates violence); instead, he hacked into VistaCorp’s security system and redistributed misbegotten funds to their victims before exposing their misdeeds online, painting him as a sympathetic, almost Robin Hood-like figure right from the outset as he strives to do good deeds and has a clear moral compass but isn’t exactly the best at making responsible decisions. Although Scott has a strained relationship with his ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer), and her new fiancé, cop Jim Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), he is extremely close to Hope, who is always excited to see him. He’s desperate to make up for lost time but faces nothing but an uphill battle to show that he’s changed and can be a responsible adult.

Luis’s enthusiasm is offset by Hanks’ cantankerous nature and Darren’s lust for power.

After his release, Scott is taken in by his former cellmate and best friend, Luis (Michael Peña), an enthusiastic, supportive, and incredibly friendly and optimistic former con who initially tries to coax Scott back into his former life. Luis is one of many highlights in Ant-Man; in many ways a predecessor to the colourful characters and banter we’d see in Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017), Luis just exudes likeability and friendliness. Peña’s delivery and fast-talking cadence also provide one of the film’s most hilarious moments where Luis rapidly breaks down the particulars of a big-time score, which is fantastically realised with Peña’s voice playing over a number of other ancillary characters as he enthusiastically tells Scott how he came by this information. Luis sets Scott up at an apartment and introduces him to Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian), both of whom are only too eager to assist with Scott’s heist into a rich old man’s house and make that big score. Scott doesn’t return to his cat burglar ways lightly, but believes he has no choice if he ever hopes to set himself up with an apartment, pay his child maintenance fees, and see his daughter again. In the interim years after the opening, Hank Pym has done pretty well for himself; he set up his own company, Hank Technologies, and is clearly quite wealthy from the research and technology developed there. However, he has slowly become more and more of a recluse and been pushed further away from his company; his protégé, Darren Cross, is in the final stages of assuming full control of Hank Technologies, renaming it Cross Technologies, and fully replicating the Hank Particle technology. Fascinated by Hank’s past as the shrunken secret agent superhero Ant-Man, Darren has developed a suit, the “Yellowjacket”, to reproduce the technology and sell it as a peacekeeping weapon for geo-political and military applications. Hank is frustrated by all of this, especially Darren’s insistence on reproducing the Ant-Man technology, but handicapped by his ability to do anything about it; prolonged exposure to the Hank Particles has left Hank physically unable to suit up again because of the risk of further (and permanent) damage to his mind and body but he is equally adamant that his estranged daughter, Hope, not take up the mantle because of the risk not only to her but also his lingering guilt and fear after losing his wife to that same technology.   

Darren is not just on the cusp of having everything he lusts for, but also completely going off the rails.

Although Darren is frustrated at his inability to shrink organic material, both Hank and Hope know that it’s only a matter of time before he cracks the secret and begins manufacturing weaponised Ant-Man technology. Although Hank is reluctant to risk losing Hope, he’s more than happy to recruit Scott to his cause, having identified him as the perfect expendable candidate for their operation thanks to his intellect and skills as a cat burglar. I always found Hank’s reasoning here very interesting, and somewhat hypocritical; he won’t risk losing Hope so he brings in Scott, positioning him to a point where the former thief has little choice but to agree to become Ant-Man, but Scott has quite a lot to lose as well so it just goes to show that Hank, for all his morals and ethics, doesn’t necessarily have the most clean-cut of motivations. Anyway, Scott is initially disheartened to learn that all his efforts have resulted in only an old motorcycle suit and a funky helmet but, upon slipping into the outfit out of sheer curiosity, he is both excited and horrified to discover that it enables him to shrink down to near-microscopic proportions at the push of a button! Scott is naturally freaked out and attempts to return the suit, only to be arrested in the process and perfectly placed for Hank to exposit a truncated version of his life story and his troubles with Darren Cross. For a stereotypical, suit-wearing antagonist, Darren actually has a few things going for him that help him to break free of the corporate bad-guy trope I loathe so much. Of course he’s a smooth-talking, slick weasel and a sharp businessman, but he’s also a manipulative and sadistic asshole; he took full advantage of Hank’s trust and faith to gain a majority interest in Hank Technologies, leeched every bit of information and brilliance from his mentor he possibly could to advance his own career and self-interests, and has no qualms about killing those who get in his way using perverted Hank Particles to reduce them to a gooey residue. He’s a highly intelligent, and highly unstable, antagonist who oozes charm but also menace; you’re never really sure what he’s thinking and you can almost see the urge to lash out and go full crazy bubbling beneath the surface. In many ways, he’s a dark opposite for both Scott and Hank since he’s kind of like what Scott could have become if he’d gone down that path while also being on the verge of a full-on meltdown like Hank seems to be half the time. Both Darren and Scott also have eyes on Hope, but Darren’s lack of mortality and lust for power are what separate him from his rival.

Hope resents her father keeping things from her and stopping her from suiting up.

Hope and Hank have a strained relationship, to say the least; she resents her father for keeping the truth about what happened to her mother from her, and for picking Scott over her, however they come together when they realise how dangerously close Darren is to perfecting and weaponising the Ant-Man technology. Still, Hope is very abrasive to both Scott and her father, referring to him as “Hank” or “Dr. Pym” for much of the film and constantly annoyed at Scott’s ignorance. Familiar with both Darren’s research and personality, as well as the particulars of Hank’s technology, to say nothing of the company’s security measures and systems, Hope is also Scott’s physical superior in every way; she sees Scott as a bungling, naïve fool who’s in over his head and is greatly frustrated at her father’s apparent lack of trust in her. To be fair, Hank distrusts almost everyone; he resents both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the flamboyant nature of the Avengers, and sees this job as being more about subterfuge then barging in all guns blazing. Hank is also tortured at the loss of his wife, who joined him for his pint-sized adventures as the Wasp and was lost to him after she was forced to reduce herself down beyond the limits of the suit and got lost in the “Quantum Realm” as a result. Scott’s influence on the two is palpable; by sharing with Hope that Hank clearly loves her and doesn’t want to risk losing her, he not only learns the trick to communicating with Hank’s ants but also helps mend the rift between father and daughter, finally revealing the truth about her mother’s death and her father’s inability to cope with the grief of his greatest failure. Consequently, all three are forced to set aside their differences, and self-doubts, in order to redeem each other and keep Darren from potentially threatening the world for the next generation.

The Nitty-Gritty:
One thing that sets Ant-Man apart from other films in the MCU, particularly at the time it was made, was its strong emphasis towards humour; humour has always been a big part of the MCU, but Ant-Man is basically part-comedy and shines all the brighter for it. Paul Rudd impresses in the title role with his incredible screen charisma, likeability, and comedic timing and the film features not just the traditional snark and biting wit of the MCU but also some truly amusing gags relating to Baskin-Robbins (they always find out) and Titanic (Cameron, 1997), but also excellent use of sight gags and editing (the film consistently cuts away from the drama of Scott’s shrunken adventures to see him barely having an impact on the real world). Ant-Man also separates itself from other MCU movies by being as much a heist movie as it is a superhero affair; Scott and his crew undergo a great deal of preparation and planning before breaking into Hank’s house, which involves acquiring uniforms, cutting power lines, and communicating from a nondescript van. Once Scott is inside the house, we get to see just how capable and adaptable he is; he’s slick and agile, easily able to slip inside with barely a whisper, and cobbles together unique solutions to break into Hank’s antique vault using only household items. Whilst being trained in combat by Hope and the particulars to the suit by Hank, Scott lends his skills to planning the assault on Pym Technologies, which involves studying the layouts and the security systems and the defences surrounding the Yellowjacket suit. This requires a highly co-ordinated attack on all fronts, using every resource at their disposal, including not just Scott’s crew (much to Hank’s chagrin) and also an infiltrating into the Avengers compound. This leads to a brief scuffle between Ant-Man and Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) that is the first true test of Scott’s newfound abilities, and additional opportunities for Luis and Scott’s amusing cohorts to shine with their hilarious shenanigans.

The suits look fantastic thanks to both excellent practical and digital effects.

Ant-Man absolutely excels in its visuals and presentation. The Ant-Man suit itself is a thing a beauty; fittingly drawing its influences from Scott Lang’s comic book adventures and more modern interpretations of the character, it’s not a mechanised suit of armour or made up of fancy nanotech and wis, instead, a very tangible and almost rudimentary costume that resembles a motorcycle outfit. It looks advanced, but not so advanced that it’s impossible to believe a genius like Hank Pym could have made it at home and with limited resources, and I love how it seems so functional and practical. The helmet is especially impressive, especially in this first outing for the character; rather then peeling back like nanotech, it flips up and is a largely practical prop, all of which works wonders for bringing this frankly ridiculous character to life. Darren’s Yellowjacket outfit is functionally similar, but noticeably different; for starters, it was brought to life using digital effects but I sure as hell couldn’t really tell that when watching the film. Yellowjacket has always been a bit of an absurd character, costume, and concept for me but the film presents the character as very menacing and technologically superior to Ant-Man in everyway. While it’s admittedly very “safe” for the film to wheel out the dark doppelgänger trope again, Yellowjacket can not only shrink and grow himself and other objects but he can also fly and sports stinger-like blasters on his back; this, coupled with the characters’ distinctive red and yellow colour schemes, really makes it much easier to distinguish the two in their climatic fight scene.

Ant-Man’s unique ability to shrink makes for some fun and innovative action sequences and visuals.

Naturally, Ant-Man’s most unique selling point is the character’s ability to shrink down to a near-microscopic level; this effect is rendered using digital technology and directly attributed to the suit and the Pym Particles, meaning that Scott must stay in the suit and the helmet at all times to stay alive when shrunken. Although minuscule in size, Scott retains his full-size strength and weight, effectively making him superhuman when he’s shrunk. However, the dangers surrounding him are many and varied; normal, everyday things such as a person entering a room, rats, and water are life-threatening hazards and the effect is, quite naturally, very disorientating for Scott for much of the first half of the film. Thanks to a lengthy (and amusing) montage sequence, Scott slowly learns to master the suit, which enables him to shrunk and grow in a fraction of a second to pass through the smallest openings, strike with near-superhuman speed, strength, and swiftness, and enlarge or reduce everyday objects to be used as weapons in combat. As versatile as the suit is, perhaps the greatest benefit of the suit is the ability to control ants using electromagnetic waves. Hank is obviously the absolute master of this; he controls flying ants to spirit Scott across the city, commands “Bullet Ants” to keep him subdued, and even directs drones to communicate and pass sugar cubes. While Hank is very clinical about this ability, preferring to number the ants rather than name them and grow attached to them, Scott is much more appreciative of their help and bonds with them like one would a pet. He names his flying ant “Anthony” and is devastated when it is killed near the finale, but also learns through his training of the particular differences and practical applications of each of the different types of ants at his disposal: “Crazy Ants” can conduct electricity to fry electronics, Bullet Ants deliver an excruciating sting, “Carpenter Ants” allow him to fly about at high speeds, and “Fire Ants” not only bite but also form bridges and pathways. By the finale, Scott has fully mastered the suit and the ants, and is able to shrink and grow in the blink of an eye to dodge bullets and take down entire groups of highly trained, armed men, leading to some of the MCU’s most unique action sequences as everyday locations are rendered exciting and action-packed thanks to Scott’s diminutive stature.

Yellowjacket is defeated, Ant-Man returns from the Quantum Realm, and Hope finally earns her wings.

A particularly frosty confrontation between Hank and Darren sets Cross off and sees him beefing up security, leading to an escalation in Hank’s plans. Although he despairs of Scott’s friends, Hank begrudgingly accepts their help in causing distractions and infiltrating Pym Technology. While Ant-Man and his ants fry the servers and cause chaos to the security systems, Hank puts himself in considerable danger as Darren negotiates the selling of the Yellowjacket technology to Carson and his Hydra associates, and the two finally reveal their true faces as hated enemies. Although Hank is wounded in the fracas, the timely intervention of Hope allows Scott to escape when he’s captured; Hope’s pleas to Darren fall on deaf ears and, pushed to the edge by the destruction of his company, he dons the Yellowjacket suit for himself and fully embraces his hatred and lust for power. This leads to some fun and incredibly unique fight scenes as Ant-Man and Yellowjacket battle not just on a damaged helicopter but also in a suitcase, bouncing about between packets of sweets, keys, and a mobile phone, and Ant-Man bats Yellowjacket into a fly zapper with a table tennis pad. Darren’s knowledge of Scott’s identity leads to him targeting Cassie, escalating their conflict significantly and leading to my favourite fight sequence of the film where Ant-Man and Yellowjacket duke it out on a toy train set and across Cassie’s bedroom, leading not just to an enlarged ant being set loose upon the city but a gigantic Thomas the Tank Engine crashing out into the street! Yellowjacket’s titanium armour proves too tough for Ant-Man and, with his daughter at risk, Scott has no choice but to risk going sub-atomic in order to disrupt Darren’s suit and reduce him down into a twisted nothingness. Adrift in the Quantum Realm, Scott is disorientated and bombarded with bizarre visuals but holds on to his memories and love for Cassie and uses those emotions to force himself back to consciousness, repairing his regulator and returning to the real world. His heroic actions and self-sacrifice earn him not just his daughter’s adulation but Paxton’s respect, finally allowing him to be a part of Cassie’s life once more or for them to build a family unit. His return also gives Hank the hope that he might be able to retrieve his wife one day, and finally sees Scott and Hope act on their mutual attraction for each other. The film concludes with Luis (eventually) relating that the Falcon is actively seeking out Ant-Man for help with a much bigger problem that affects not just the superhero community, but the entire world, and Hank finally gifting Hope with her own Wasp suit for the next go-around.

The Summary:
I wasn’t expecting much when I went into Ant-Man; the MCU was growing and starting to veer away towards the cosmic and outlandish and it seemed like their days of doing more grounded, more human heroes were all but done but Ant-Man definitely set a precedent for diverse storytelling that the MCU continues to stick to. It’s amazing to me that even after expanding their scope towards Gods and the depths of space and hinting towards larger cosmic threats the MCU is still masterfully able to snap back to ground level with a character like Ant-Man, and Scott Lang was such a breath of fresh air for the franchise. Paul Rudd is so immediately likeable, and he brought a real comical, heartfelt performance to Scott Lang, and it’s largely thanks to him that I found myself actually caring about Ant-Man for the first time in…I think forever. The comedy and gags on offer were absolutely top notch, with Luis being an obvious highlight, but I also really enjoyed Michael Douglas’s performance; he played a world weary, cranky, slightly unstable former superhero-come-mentor perfectly and brought so much presence to every scene he was in. He, like all of the actors in this, also seemed to be having a great time with the film, which doesn’t take itself too seriously and perfectly incorporates elements of a heist movie to give it a unique flavour. While we see incredible cosmic visuals and escalating threats quite often in the MCU, Ant-Man’s shrinking sequences are still really impressive; I love how our senses are changed alongside Scott’s when he’s smaller and how everyday things we take for granted suddenly become a life-threatening obstacle for Ant-Man. It’s fun seeing Scott learn about the suit and what he can do, and seeing him bond with the different ants and work alongside his crew, and while I think Ant-Man probably would have been better placed in the MCU’s first phase, it was a much-needed palette-cleanser at the time and remains one of the most entertaining and unique entries in the MCU.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Did you enjoy Ant-Man? How did you think it compared to other films in the MCU? What did you think to the emphasis on comedy and heist elements and on Scott’s status as a struggling ex-con and father? Did you enjoy the film’s unique action sequences and shrinking effects? Were you disappointed that Yellowjacket ended up just being a dark mirror of Ant-Man or did you think Darren’s character stood out enough to justify it? Were you a fan of Ant-Man prior to this film and, if so, which iteration of the character was your favourite? Whatever you think about Ant-Man, sign up to drop a comment below or leave a comment on my social media, check back in next week as Sci-Fi Sunday continues.

Talking Movies [Sci-Fi Sunday]: The Lawnmower Man: Director’s Cut


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I have decided to spend every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Talking Movies

Released: 6 March 1992
Director: Brett Leonard
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Budget: $10 million
Stars: Jeff Fahey, Pierce Brosnan, Mark Bringelson, and Austin O’Brien

The Plot:
Intellectually challenged Job Smith (Fahey) works as a lawnmower man, he is regularly abused and mistreated by townsfolk. However, when Doctor Lawrence Angelo’s (Brosnan) research into using psychoactive drugs and virtual reality to improve the intelligence of chimps dramatically increase’s Job’s intelligence, the once childlike Job transforms into a hyper intelligent being whose sanity soon begins to suffer as a result.

The Background:
The Lawnmower Man began life as a short story by my favourite author, Stephen King. First published in 1975, “The Lawnmower Man” told the story of a strange lawnmower man who was actually a satyr of the Greek God, Pan, and driven to kill a client in His name by telekinetically controlling a lawnmower. Quite how this translated into a cautionary tale about the potential dangers of virtual reality is beyond me but, regardless, this concept of digital worlds and the potential danger of technology was a popular one in the realms of science-fiction and clearly had a strong influence on the writing and production of this very loose adaptation. King was so incensed at the changes made to his original story that he sued to have his name removed from the film’s title and marketing, and the film received mostly mixed reviews, with the film’s special effects being a noteworthy highlight. The Lawnmower Man’s $32.1 million domestic box office made the film a moderate success, which justified the release of a far worse sequel about four years later and the release of a much longer and more intricate “Director’s Cut” on home media that I’ll be looking at today.

The Review:
Like something out of a 1950s sci-fi film, The Lawnmower Man opens with a piece of blurb warning about the dangers of virtual reality; the potential of this technology (and computers in general), which was seen as so new and limitless at the time, to be the source of both enlightenment and corruption, were rife back in the day and these themes permeate throughout The Lawnmower Man. Immediately, we’re shown the scary potential of virtual reality as Dr. Angelo’s research has been used, in conjunction with various drugs and stimulants, to turn an ordinary chimp into a deadly engine for war…largely against his wishes.

The Director’s Cut features a much longer opening following the chimp’s escape from V.S.I.

This sequence, largely framed as a dream sequence in the theatrical cut, is expanded upon significantly here in the Director’s Cut as we follow the chimp as he uses his increased intelligence to escape from captivity, acquire a gun, and shoot his way out of the Virtual Space Industries (V.S.I.) facility (which is under the administration of the mysterious and malevolent governmental body known as “The Shop”, a semi-recurring agency in King’s works). In the theatrical cut, the chimp is killed curing the escape but, here, he makes it all the way to the nearby town thanks to the guidance of his V.R. headset; it’s while seeking sanctuary that the chimp meets Job, the titular simple-minded lawnmower man who mistakes him for the comic book superhero “Cyboman”. This introduces us to Job a lot sooner than in the theatrical cut, showcases both his kind, naïve nature and his childlike demeanour, and recontextualises the introduction of his father-figure,  Father Francis McKeen (Jeremy Slate), who is directly responsible for the Shop’s mercenaries finding and killing the chimp, which leaves Job distraught and Angelo incensed.

Angelo sees in Job the chance to use his research for something other than war.

A pacifist by nature, Angelo is frustrated by the Shop’s constant interference and insistence of twisting his research into a tool for war; he believes in the potential of virtual reality to improve the minds of men towards a higher calling, one far greater than conflict and death. Excited at how far the chimp came in its cognitive development and discouraged at his death, Angelo is driven to distraction by the potential of his research to help countless people just like Job. Even after taking a hiatus from work, Angelo refuses to focus on anything other than his work, which causes his relationship with his wife, Caroline Angelo (Colleen Coffey), to suffer. In the theatrical cut, she out-right leaves him part-way through the film but, here she acts far more aloof and instead goes out on the town with her friends, leaving Angelo in the basement with his work, his audio journal, and a bottle of Scotch.

Virtual reality transforms Job from a simpleton into a confident savant.

Angelo sees vast potential in Job to realise the full potential of virtual reality; skipping over the V.S.I. “aggression therapy” and concentrating purely on virtual reality and stimulating concoctions, he convinces Job to agree to a series of sessions where, over time, his mental capacity is dramatically increased. Beginning as a simple, child-like man who man in the town take advantage of (including Father McKeen, who regularly beats, berates, and mistreats Job) with little understanding about personal hygiene or reasoning, Job is a hardworking lawnmower man with a natural gift for fixing mechanical things but, thanks to Angelo’s experiments, he becomes an excitable and incredibly capable individual. He is soon able to surpass his young friend, Peter Parkette (O’Brien), at Angelo’s V.R. games, outgrows comic books, and seeks to feed his growing intellect with knowledge and input of all sorts, which transforms his mind and body into a far more competent and capable form.

While some treat Job terribly, others are incredibly loving and supportive towards him.

While Job runs afoul of the local town bully, the aggressive Jake Simpson (John Laughlin) and is regularly abused by McKeen for the smallest transgressions, Job actually has a couple of close friends who genuinely care about his well-being. Angelo likes him, for a start, and then there’s Peter, with whom Job shares a love of comic books and videogames. He’s also treated like a surrogate son by McKeen’s brother, Terry (Geoffrey Lewis), a local handyman and groundskeeper who employs Job and is one swig of booze away from becoming a full-blown alcoholic. In a nice twist, even as Job’s changes begin to negatively affect and overwhelm him, he never forgets those who have been kind to him and actively seeks out to punish those who have wronged him and others when he begins to develop awesome powers.

The malevolent Shop pay for their desire to exploit Job’s abilities.

The core of the film is Job’s descent under the weight of his newfound abilities but this only really comes about because of the intervention of Angelo’s supervisor at V.S.I., Sebastian Timms (Bringelson); although Timms begins the film as a straight-laced, corporate ass-kisser who, unlike Angelo, doesn’t have a problem with bowing to the whims of the Shop, he soon becomes a real cypher and sends the plot spiralling into destruction and tragedy. Eager to impress the authoritative Director (Dean Norris), Timms swaps out Angelo’s formula for the original “Project 5” samples so that they can see what the effect will be on a human being. The result is unprecedented to all, but especially Angelo, who comes to realise, with mounting horror, that Job has developed awesome, unstable abilities and suffered a psychotic break that devastates V.S.I.’s employees and leaves Timms to a truly horrific fate.

The Nitty-Gritty:
I’ve always been a fan of The Lawnmower Man and I was excited to watch the extended Director’s Cut when I bought the DVD. Unfortunately, though, much of the additional material kind of bogs the film down, especially the extended sequence with the chimp which only bloats the opening. I was surprised to see the natural of Angelo and Caroline’s relationship issues change but there were some nice new additions, too, such as Angelo having more interactions with Peter’s mother, Carla (Rosalee Mayeux), him asking Father McKeen for permission to take Job away from his duties at the church and with Terry to run his V.R. experiments, and some slightly longer scenes at V.S.I. showing Angelo trying to calm Job’s growing thirst for knowledge and input and Job experimenting with the limits of his powers to cause lesions to form on his skin. Another significant addition is Job using his psychic powers to manipulate Caroline into conflict against the Shop’s agents, thus causing her death, something which is entirely absent in the theatrical cut and goes a long way to show just how far gone Job is at that point.

Job’s new abilities allow him to wreck terrible revenge on those who have wronged him.

While The Lawnmower Man is only partially based on King’s original story, some of his traditional tropes still show up in full force; thankfully, there are no writers here but a couple of abusive, aggressive assholes show up in full force. There’s Jake, who I mentioned before, who routinely mocks and mistreats Job for his childlike demeanour and is angered into a fury when local hardbody Marnie Burke (Jenny Wright) takes a shine to Job after he begins to show more confidence and physical appeal. There’s also Peter’s father, Harold (Ray Lykins), who regularly yells at and beats his wife and child. Both of these reprehensible individuals fall victim to Job’s wrath when he begins to exact his revenge upon those who have wronged him; it’s not entirely clear what Job does to Jake (though it seems to be implied that he made Jake a simpleton like he (as in Job) used to be) but he rips Harold to shreds with his lawnmower and daunting psychic powers in perhaps the only part of the film that is similar to the original story.

As Job’s intelligence increases, so does his mania and his mental abilities.

The Project 5 formulas are noted several times by Angelo to heighten a subject’s aggression, but they have an entirely unexpected additional effect on Jon; he gets splitting headaches and begins to pick up on the thoughts of those around him before developing telekinesis. His mind absorbs information and input “like a clean, hungry sponge”, allowing him to surpass Angelo’s intelligence at a rate that leaves Angelo speechless in fear. As these changes begin to take hold, Job suffers a serious of worrying seizures and struggles to adapt to his newfound abilities but soon suffers a psychotic break and comes to see himself as accessing powers and abilities lost to mankind generations ago; all but forcing Angelo to continue his experiments, Job begins to grow more and more unstable, turning to violence and hurting Marnie, reducing her to a gibbering wreck, as he begins to lose control of his abilities and sanity.

As his powers grow in cyberspace, Job is able to influence the real world.

Impressed with a demonstration of Job’s abilities, the Director orders him to be brought in to the Shop for further testing and study; angered at Timms’ betrayal and scared half to death at Job’s increasing instability and growing God complex, Angelo is unable to protect Job from the Shop’s mercenaries, which sees him projecting a digital version of himself into the real world and reduced them to pixelated atoms! Job’s wrath is only increased when an errant shot leaves Terry dead and, having dispatched all of V.S.I.’s security with a swarm of pixelated bees, he enters the facility unimpeded to put his insane plan into motion.

Job transforms himself into Cyber Christ, a being of pure digital energy!

Having come to regard himself as the bridge between reality and virtual reality, Job plans to upload his very consciousness into the virtual world, becoming a “Cyber Christ” in the process, and spread his influence across the entire world. Although Angelo believes all of this to be a psychotic delusion, Job is able to complete his plan, transforming himself into a being of pure energy and Angelo is forced to try, one last time, to appeal to the last remnants of Job’s humanity in cyberspace. Having trapped Job behind a computer virus, and threatening him with death from bombs he placed around the facility, Angelo is ultimately no match for Job’s awesome powers but, when he realises that Peter and Carla are also in danger, Job allows Angelo to leave before they all die in the explosion.

Fahey is fantastic in the film, masterfully portraying Job’s descent into psychotic mania.

Although it appears as though Job perished in the blast, he is finally able to crack Angelo’s lock and escapes at the very last minute, with the final shot of the film being his “birth cry” as very telephone around the world rings in union, ending the film on a semi-ambiguous note that, sadly, the sequel dropped the ball on following up on. Still, The Lawnmower Man continues to impress me; its effects and realisation of virtual reality and cyberspace may be wildly outdated and based in pure fantasy but I think they hold up pretty well and are indicative of the technology and fears/speculation of the time. What also bolsters the film, for me, are some captivating performances from both Brosnan and Fahey; beginning as a wise mentor whose admiration of Job’s progress soon turns to fear for his sanity, Angelo is an admirable idealist whose wishes to use V.R. for the betterment of mankind result only in destruction. Similarly, Fahey does a fantastic job portraying Job’s childlike innocence, his pain and confusion at his growing psychic powers, his thirst for knowledge, and his descent into both stoic, unnerving menace and aggressive, unstable insanity.

An under-rated sci-fi film that explores a fantastically horrific side of V.R.

Fahey delivers some truly awesome and memorable lines here, such as his gibbering, terrifying statement of “I saw God! I touched God!”, his later stoic declaration of him becoming “Cyber Christ”, and his eventual declaration when he has fulfilled this objective of “I am God here!” (not to discount Brosnan’s moving whisper of “”Oh, dear God…” when he realises how far off the deep end Job has gone), all of which tie into the additional themes regarding faith and religion. Such notions, which originally were used to keep Job in check and under threat of reprisal for his transgressions, quickly become redundant as Job begins to experiment with his abilities; free of all fear and boundaries, he sets Father McKeen ablaze, easily manipulates the minds of others, and soon transforms from a meek, mentally challenged man into a monstrous being both in and out of virtual reality.

The Summary:
I don’t see The Lawnmower Man talked about enough when the subject of sci-fi films comes up. Sure, it’s maybe not aged too well and is absolutely nothing like the story it’s based on but so what? Total Recall (Verhoeven, 1990) is nothing like the short story it’s based on and that didn’t hurt it; obviously, it’s not a fair comparison and Total Recall  is a much better film but my point is that debates about fidelity to the source material are often meaningless when the result is an enjoyable piece of media. By gearing the story into a cautionary tale regarding the unknown dangers and potential of technology ad virtual reality, The Lawnmower Man presents a truly unique twist on the concept of V.R. as a gateway into the untapped potential of the human mind. The effects are still pretty impressive for the time; it helps that the V.R. sequences are all entirely computer-generated rather than splicing humans into cyberspace and, for me, they hold up pretty well and tie into the overall plot of Job transforming into this digital tyrant. Some solid performances only bolster the film’s appeal for me and, while the Director’s Cut actually causes the runtime to drag a bit more compared to some others, I can never get enough of a good thing. For having a truly interesting premise and execution, some stellar performances by Brosnan and Fahey, and some chilling sequences involving Job’s wrath, The Lawnmower Man is an unfairly under-rated gem of a science-fiction romp and I highly recommend it to fans of the genre who are looking for something a little different.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Have you ever seen The Lawnmower Man? If so, what did you think to it and do you enjoy this longer cut of the film? What did you think to the film’s premise and the performances, particularly Brosnan and Fahey? Did you enjoy the film’s depiction of virtual reality and cyberspace or do you feel it’s a little too dated? Have you ever read the original story and, if so, would you have preferred that the film was closer to the source material? What is your favourite Stephen King adaptation and how are you celebrating National Science-Fiction Day today? Whatever your thoughts on The Lawnmower Man, or sci-fi in general, be sure to leave a comment below.

Talking Movies [Sci-Fi Sunday]: The Matrix Resurrections


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I have decided to spend every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Talking Movies

Released: 22 December 2021
Director: Lana Wachowski
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $190 million
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Jessica Henwick, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jonathan Groff, and Neil Patrick Harris

The Plot:
Twenty years after the events of The Matrix Revolutions (Wachowski Brothers, 2003) Neo (Reeves) lives a seemingly ordinary life as Thomas A. Anderson in San Francisco where his therapist prescribes him blue pills. However, when Morpheus (Abdul-Mateen II) offers him a red pill, Neo finds his mind reopened to the world of the Matrix.

The Background:
Andy and Larry Wachowski (as they were known then) hit upon their greatest and most notable success when they were able to sell Warner Brothers on The Matrix, a science-fiction film that was heavily influenced by manga and anime and made an instant and lasting impression on cinema by popularising “bullet time” and “wire-fu”. Produced for a paltry $63 million, The Matrix was a massive hit that is spawned not only two sequels but a whole slew of multimedia merchandise. However, neither of the sequels garnered quite the same critical reaction as the quasi-cult hit original; while the directors were content to allow the story to be continued, and ended, in The Matrix Online (Monolith Productions, 2005 to 2009), rumours continued to persist that a fourth film was being considered, with stars Reeves and Hugo Weaving both expressing interest in revisiting the franchise. Development of a continuation finally gained traction in 2017, when writer Zack Penn was confirmed to be working on a fourth instalment of some kind; although Lily Wachowski chose not to commit to such a large scale production, she gave her blessing and her sister, Lana, officially returned to direct the fourth film alongside returning stars Reeves and Cary-Anne Moss. Framed as a direct continuation of where the third film left off, fans were left confused when the first trailer dropped and Lawrence Fishburne announced that he was the only member of the original cast not asked to return. The movie also attracted undue criticism when filming damaged buildings and street lights in San Francisco, and was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but The Matrix Resurrections finally released and accrued a disappointing $15738 million at the box office. It was also met with largely mixed reviews; critics praised the film’s sentimental value and the return of its familiar characters while also criticising it as a redundant revisitation suffering from muddled execution.

The Review:
If you’ve read my review of the original film, you’ll know that The Matrix is one of my all-time favourite films and franchises; I was obsessed with the first film when it came out and watched it religiously on sleepovers with friends. The film was ground-breaking and endlessly alluring at the time and, while some elements haven’t aged too well, it remains a firm favourite of mine. I even really enjoy the blending of philosophy and high-octane action featured in the second film and, though I was disappointed by the third, I felt like the trilogy had been wrapped up decently enough and was somewhat annoyed to find that the franchise was going to be dusted off some twenty years later (twenty years! Man, do I feel old!) as I felt like the story had been told and it seemed like a cheap cash grab to me. But…it’s the Matrix, and I do love me some Keanu Reeves, so I was obligated to check it out if only to satisfy my own morbid curiosity and having been intrigued by the vague trailers and marketing.

Thing are not all they seem for Thomas Anderson, whose perception of reality is skewed by fragmented memories.

It’s a good job that I am such a fan of Keanu’s and the Matrix franchise as those elements ended up being some of the best parts of The Matrix Resurrections. Framed as a kind of re-quel, which treads over familiar ground (and even splices in footage of the original trilogy as flashbacks and dream sequences) while advanced the story twenty years after the last film. Despite apparently sacrificing his life to bring about peace between the machines and the humans of Zion, the man once known as Neo is alive and well in a new version of the Matrix, one without the green tint and grungy filter. Back in his original identity of Thomas A. Anderson, he is a successful videogame designer who found fame and fortune by creating an incredibly successful trilogy of (presumably virtual reality) videogames based on his disparate memories of the first three films. However, just as Anderson’s dreams and fragmented memories have created a virtual world for millions of players, so too have them plagued his sense of reality, and even drove him to try and leap off a rooftop in order to “fly away”. Following this apparent suicide attempt, his business partner, Smith (Groff), requests that he attend regular therapy sessions with the ominously named Analyst (Harris) and, thanks to a constant prescription of blue pills, Anderson is able to keep himself from suffering a psychotic break.

Anderson is captivated by Tiffany, whose visage stirs up memories of Trinity and he borrowed for his videogame.

Despite being deep into the production of a new videogame, Binary, for is company, Deus Ex Machina, Anderson is disturbed by Smith’s insistence that they work on a new Matrix videogame, leading to a montage sequence wherein Smith, Anderson, and his fellow programmers and stuff wax lyrical with some metatextual, on the nose commentary about big corporations mining familiar franchises just to make more money off previous successes. Sadly, this kind of fourth-wall-breaking discussion permeates a great deal of The Matrix Resurrections, with even Anderson himself being saddened to be taking a creative step backwards rather than trying something new and innovative. His only reprieve is his infatuation with Tiffany (Moss), a beautiful woman he sees on a consistent basis in a coffee house and who reminds him of Trinity, a woman from his dreams and whom he programmed into his videogame. When not struggling to strike up a conversation with her, or debating his sanity, or working on Binary, Anderson is running a singular module of The Matrix that recreates the iconic opening of the original film, but with a few alterations to mix things up, but for the most part is fairly convinced that he’s just a videogame designer with mental issues and a skewed sense of identity.

Allies old, new, and fundamentally changed work to bring Neo back to the real world.

All of that changes when he is suddenly met by a new incarnation of Morpheus, one seemingly pulled from his videogame world, who offers him a familiar choice: stay in his reality, or return to the real world. If you were wondering whether Lawrence Fishburne makes an appearance in this film, or his perhaps adopting a new avatar, you’ll be disappointed to find that Morpheus is long dead and only appears in archival footage; instead, where get this new version of Morpheus, one apparently spliced with elements of Neo’s old nemesis, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), to act as an agent within that loop. A far more mischievous version of the character, this new Morpheus is actually a sentient program, of sorts, who is able to communicate with and assist the heroes in the real world thanks to an advanced kind of nanotechnology, but he’s far from the wise mentor figure of his predecessor. Instead, he ‘s more like a necessary component to help convince Anderson to leave the Matrix and reclaim his identity as Neo, something he is largely reluctant to do thanks to the Analyst’s influence on his perception of the world. Still, Neo’s curiosity and familiarity with the words and images presented to him by Morpheus override his hesitation, and he’s soon joining Captain Bugs (Henwick) and the rest of her crew aboard the Mnemosyne hovercraft, sixty years after sacrificing himself to save Zion. Neo is disorientated and melancholy to find that his sacrifice didn’t appear to change much about the world, but Bugs takes him to the new Zion, Io, and reunites him with an elderly, cynical Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and learns that a peace does exist between man and machine. Shortly after the end of the war, the Matrix was purged of all former anomalies and blue-tinted machines helped the remnants of humanity to build a new haven and worked with them to grow fresh fruit and vegetables, while staving off attacks from the red-tinted, squid-like Sentinels that refused to abide by the peace treaty. The original Morpheus refused to believe that Neo’s sacrifice would fail, which led to Zion’s destruction, and a contingent of people have grown up idolising and even deifying Neo and Trinity for their actions, but Niobe’s primary concern is keeping her people safe, which leads to her reluctantly locking Neo up and pushing Bugs to defy her commander’s direct order and help spring Neo so that he can lead a desperate reinsertion into the Matrix to try and rescue Trinity.

The Nitty-Gritty:
If you’re a fan of the original film but haven’t really seen it in a while, then The Matrix Resurrections really has you covered, for the most part. It opens almost exactly like the original film, and the majority of its call-backs and references are to the ground-breaking original while repurposing some of the stronger elements of the sequels in new ways. One thing that is sadly largely absent from the film, however, is the kung-fu (or “wire-fu”, to be more accurate) fight scenes that so heavily influenced action cinema right up to present day. The first half of the film is a slow, introspective reintroduction to the world of the Matrix, one both familiar and disconcertingly different, as we follow Neo and try to figure out what’s real and what isn’t. Thanks to his fragmented memories and a skewed avatar, his sense of reality is more shot than ever, but he starts to piece his identity back together once he reawakens in the real world and is put through his paces by Morpheus. However, this isn’t really the all-powerful, full capable Neo we knew and loved; instead, he’s plagued by self-doubt and has no interest in fighting any more, especially after giving everything he had seemingly for nothing. While the world is noticeably better than the one he remembers, humanity is still somewhat divided; less and less people have been freed from the Matrix thanks to Niobe’s focus on keeping those who are free safe and the system of control he fought so hard against has simply been repurposed by a contingent of malevolent machines.

The new Smith offers little in the way of challenge for Neo, or interest to me as a viewer.

After his sacrifice, Neo’s body was taken away by the Analyst, who is revealed to basically have replaced the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis) and is behind the stability of the Matrix’s new iteration and the resurrection of Neo and Trinity. Initially looking to study them, he patched them back together using a combination of the cloning technology used to grow humans and additional mechanic parts, only to find that their incredible bond threatened the very Matrix itself. However, when kept safely apart, their very presence in the Matrix vastly improved the energy output and acceptance of those plugged in, thus largely negating the peace Neo so desperately fought for. With Neo unplugged, the machines are on the brink and a new reboot of the system, something which Smith is adamant to prevent as it would mean he would once again be absorbed into the Matrix code. However, this is not my Smith; I’m sure Jonathan Groff is a great actor, and he’s clearly doing his best to channel Hugo Weaving at points, but he’s a faint shadow of Waving/Smith’s former greatness and I actually question including him at all. Had the filmmakers brought Weaving back and had Smith, like Neo, also suffer from fragmented memories and a new life, then maybe his inclusion would have been worthwhile but, instead, Smith feels very tacked on and largely inconsequential. There’s a moment where it seems like he and Neo would join forces this time around (and that does crop up again in the finale, with very little explanation), but it quickly gives way to a bust-up between the two that is one of the few highlights of the film, recalls their subway fight from the first film, and is spoiled only by the inexplicable and completely pointless insertion of the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and his exiles.

While there are some good moments, it’s mostly an unnecessary retread of things done better in the previous films.

A great deal of the film’s emphasis is, instead, on reuniting Neo with Trinity; while their romance was severely lacking in chemistry in the original trilogy, save for a few choice moments, they seem much more comfortable at ease with each other here, arguably because of the Analyst’s efforts to bestow them with new lives and personalities. While still a troubled and largely stoic reluctant saviour, Neo has a few more moments of levity here than in the original films, where he rarely showed much emotion at all, but is still as blinded by his love for Trinity as ever as he risks the fragile peace between Io and the machines by leading a risk attempt to convince her to return to him and the real world. This involves Bugs and Morpheus infiltrating the machine city, where Trinity’s body is held, with the help of their machine allies and Neo bartering with the Analyst with everyone’s future on the line. This proves to be a risky proposition as Neo’s God-like powers are both neutered and noticeably different this time around; although he still knows kung-fu, he cannot yet fly and his more acrobatic feats come in bursts, but he can still stop bullets and even has much more emphasis on creating shields and blasting foes away. The Analyst, however, proves to be a formidable foe as he’s ability to manipulate the Matrix’s famed “bullet time” technique to slow even the One to a crawl, but in the end he’s undone thanks to a tricky plot that sees Neo get through to Trinity, Bugs swap out with her physical body, and Trinity randomly revealed to be a new incarnation of the One as she and Neo fend off the Analyst’s swarm of ‘bots and fly off with a promise (more like a threat) to rebuild the world free from the Analyst’s influence.

The Summary:
I was hesitant about The Matrix Resurrections; the trailers were questionably vague and trying a little too hard to be mysterious for my liking, something which has only led to disappointment where the Matrix is concerned in the past. They also made the film seem to be a retread of the original, but over twenty years later and with some cast members inexplicably returning or absent. I feel like I could have maybe understood the need for a new Matrix movie if we’d had an entirely new cast, with maybe only Keanu returning, or seen the One reborn within the Matrix but in Keanu’s body once again (confirming a long-held theory of mine that the One always looks like Neo) rather than finding a pretty weak excuse to bring both Neo and Trinity back. It was pretty great seeing Neo back onscreen and revisiting the Matrix lore after the third movie to see where things had progressed, but I think the film played things a little too safe; not much has really changed thanks to the contingent of machines still warring against humanity, and I would have preferred to see humans and machines living and working together without any major discord and maybe have some the rogue faction be a more prominent plot point. So much of the film is focused on reintroducing Neo and the Matrix to us, which would probably be interesting for anyone who hasn’t seen the original films, but I’d wager that the vast majority of the audience has so I kind of wanted to get things moving, or maybe spend more time seeing how the Analyst was screwing with Neo’s mind rather than retreading the same old ground again but with different actors. In the end, it was an interesting enough epilogue to one of cinema’s most influential trilogies, but I honestly dread to think where the story will go when Warner Bros. greenlight an inevitable follow-up.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

Have you seen The Matrix Resurrections? If so, what did you think to it? Did you enjoy the direction the story took Neo and how it handled his and Trinity’s resurrections or would you have preferred to see the franchise stay dormant? Which of the new was your favourite and did you like seeing how the relationship between humanity and the machines had progressed? Were you disappointed by the lack of Lawrence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, and proper fight scenes? Which of the other Matrix sequels or spin-offs was your favourite? How are you celebrating National Science-Fiction Day today? Whatever you think about The Matrix Resurrections, sign up to leave your thoughts below or drop a comment on my social media, and be sure to check in next Sunday for more sci-fi content!