Thursday, May 31, 2012


Nine months after Universal released Dracula, they put out Frankenstein, using a couple of the same actors. Renfield (Dracula's assistant) becomes Fritz (Frankenstein's assistant), and Professor Van Helsing becomes Dr. Waldman, Frankenstein's college professor. It probably goes without saying but this movie is brilliant, especially for its time. I can't recommend it enough.

It's been 15 years since I first saw this movie on VHS, and it looks even better up-scaled on a DVD. What still strikes me with most, even more so having just watched Dracula, is how dynamic the camera is. It moves into scenes and across them, there are close-ups and long shots mixed in, and mixing of studio and outdoor footage. It in no way looks like a stage play in the way Dracula does. The special effects are also quite good, relatively speaking, culminating in a burning windmill. There is even matte painting work in at least one scene.

Boris Karloff becomes one of only a few quintessential "guys in monster makeup" after this movie. He will only be replaced in the role by Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. His version of The Monster differs wildly from the novel, but it adds something to a story that would have been too difficult to film at the time. His introduction in the movie is one of the best moments on screen. It's subtle and quite. In fact, like Dracula, there's no music, a common issue for movies at this time. Somehow the lack of music still manages to set the tone nicely. And all the character motivations are out front, even though there could have been more exposition concerning Frankensten's fiance, Elizabeth, and her connection to the family, but that's what Commentary Tracks are for.

The version I watched is a restored 1999 DVD copy with all the lines that had been deleted post-1934 as well as the famous "drowning girl" scene. I'm impressed they even bothered to have a scene like that in the movie, since Dracula only showed one death, Renfield's. Sorry, spoiler warning all around. But instead of glorifying it, the director showed how innocent The Monster was and just accidentally murdered Little Maria. Afterwords, her father finds her body and parades it into town, starting one of film's most famous "mob hunting something with torches" scene. This is about the only thing that could have been better executed, since I don't understand how any of the villagers would have known about a monster on the loose. But they sure organized quick. Maybe this happens all the time to them.

I have a Tumblr blog internet write-y thing where I like to "geek spiral" over trivial Sci-Fi matters, so below are the conclusions I drew from the movie. If you haven't already, see this movie, anyway you can. I'm pretty sure it's public domain so just find it on Youtube or your favorite torrent site.

One of the earliest, best Science Fiction movies made. A film that is 81 years old, based on a novel written almost 200 years ago (194 to be as precise as I can). Hopefully in 2018 Universal has something planned. We don’t see enough “mad scientist” movies and this is one of the best (I also count Zuckerberg from The Social Network as a type of mad scientist).

When classifying the Sci-Fi elements in the movie it really comes down to animated The Monster. There’s not a lot to say here, but some dialog between Frankenstein and Dr. Waldman illuminates a little of the movie’s science. Frankenstein talks of light waves (or Electromagnetic Radiation if you prefer) beyond the ultraviolet that no one knows about. X-rays and Gamma rays (the stuff that turned Bruce Banner into The Hulk) are “beyond” that point, but must not have been discovered yet in the story. This puts the time period prior to 1895, either that or the village of Goldstadt, home of Castle Frankenstein, is way behind the times.

The point Frankenstein makes is that there is energy beyond ultraviolet that gives life. And he knows how to harness it. From the look of the tech in his lab and the Tesla-made generators, my guess is he means electricity, since the big deal is to hit The Monster with a bolt of lightning. I’m sure there’s supposed to be more than just that, but let’s exam what The Monster is. Fritz does the grunt work of finding freshly killed bodies, and a brain in a jar, for the experiment. Frankenstein stitches several corpses together and places the brain inside a slightly misshapen head. Since there are a couple bolts visible protruding from his neck, these are likely important to revival.

His intention isn’t to bring someone back from the dead, but to create a new life from the pieces of the dead. The only real failure is Fritz grabbing a brain from someone who was criminally insane, with visible lesions. In fact, Dr. Waldman is showing his college class these lesions, so it’s odd Frankenstein didn’t notice them when installing the brain. In his defense his lab is dark and he’s a little insane. I should point out in Star Trek “Bones” had trouble putting Spock’s brain back in his body and he’s a 23rd century man. How in the world did he “wire” an inactive nervous system to a brain it wasn’t developed with?

I have a feeling there are extra things going on inside the body, like more wiring and what-not. Since his head is flattened out in an unnatural way, he no doubt has more going on inside, thus accounting for increased strength, I think. The Monster knows haw to walk after a few days and understands simple commands, appearing fairly innocent until Fritz begins torturing it with fire. Then the killings begin. He constantly staggers around stiffly, grunting, but never appears to want food, so not quite a zombie. It’s just simple enough this great story works.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

1931's Dracula

There is something amazingly quaint about a horror movie made for a 1930's audience. Approximately 81 years old, I think one has to enjoy cinema to even attempt to watch Dracula. Made within a decade of the first talkies, it shows movies that are mostly stage plays in front of a camera. This is not Interview with a Vampire, or Blade.

I should point out I'm not a horror movie buff. Vampire movies are on the bottom of my hate list (that's where my most hated stuff goes, not at the top), just above torture-porn (which doesn't include Vampire killing movies like Blade, I like those). The horror genre has a respectable history, but not enough for me to want to see each year's batch worth of slaughtered young adults (looking at you Saw). Sci-Fi horror is in a different class and one day I'll psycho-analyze myself to determine why I like Resident Evil over any Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie.

It's hard for me to image a movie-going community where Dracula scared anyone. The bat scenes are laughable but the actors sell the drama, some times too much. I never understood the motivation for Dracula to move from Transylvania to the outskirts of London, but then again, he didn't last long. Sorry. Spoiler.

All the classic Vampire traits are present: his aversion to crosses, sleeping during the day, turning women into vampires, turning men into slaves, turning himself into a bat or a wolf (sadly off screen), repelled by wolfsbane, hypnotizing victims, and no reflection in a mirror. The story even explores the idea of curing Mina Harker, after she is turned, by killing Dracula. (Yes, the same Mina Harker from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.) Of note is the idea that Vampires can only sleep when under the soil of the land they are from, so Dracula had to bring Transylvanian dirt to England. The strongest moments in the movie are between Professor Van Helsing (this one, not this one) and the Count as he begins to realize the other is a Vampire. And Van Helsing isn't surprised. He even keeps some anti-Vampire tools with him. If anything I would have liked more backstory on him. Sadly, all but one death is off screen. Considering it's for a '30s audience I'll let it slide.

THE classic Gothic horror movie that is slow and cheesy (and over-acted) at times, but worth the viewing. A Universal production that will go on to make many horror monsters of the mid-20th century famous: Frankenstein, Wolf Man, Invisible Man, and The Mummy (not this one) to name a few. These creatures are even known to cross into each other's movies, and sometimes bump into Abbott and Costello. We are still seeing many of them reinvented every year by studios. This 1931 version of Dracula is currently on NetFlix.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Science-Fiction of Chernobyl Diaries

Barely, marginally a Sci-Fi flick. The only claim it has is radioactive cannibal mutants living in the remains of Prypiat. All this may be a spoiler, but the trailer shows it off already.

Now for actual spoilers. It is left a little unclear but the main issue for the six main characters (other than the radiation in the shadow of Chernobyl reactors) are wild radioactive dogs and mutants.

For the animals, packs of wild starving dogs make sense, but there seem to be carnivorous fish. Whether piranha, barracuda, or a radioactive mutant fish, they have a taste for flesh. Between the dogs, fish, bear, and people there is a large sense of hunger. And everything appears to be flesh-eating.

My only experience with a radioactive landscape is playing Fallout 3. In it you have a constant Geiger Counter that goes wild whenever you approach water. That never comes into the movie, but at least that might explain the mutant fish. The guide, Yuri, even carelessly plays in a stream to scare the other six.

As for the radioactive mutant cannibal humans, there seem to be two kinds. The super-hungry feral humans that run and claw at you, then there are “clever” humanoids that stalk and set traps. There’s even a child mutant used to distract the group, while a larger one sneaks up and snatches one of the women.

Yuri claims he’s been bringing people to the city of Prypiat for five years. He’s experienced enough to bring a gun but appears not to know about flesh eating mutants. Couple that with the Doctors at the end of the movie who talk about escaped patients or something and the whole answer seems to be human “lab rats” gone wrong.

Nothing is ever explained more than that and must be inferred from the movie. The gate guards to Prypiat turn back the tourists, surprising Yuri. This sounds like a recent issue. The mutants are basically flesh-eating humans which display some form of deceptive hunting practices. Most of the time it seems inconsistent why some act smart and some act dumb.

All this could be chalked up to be poor writing. At least by the end the remaining characters deal with acute radiation sickness, about the only science that is plausible in the story. One of the women has a digital camera, and she uses it frequently. I know radiation effects standard film cameras, but I don’t know what it does to digital images or optics or CCD chips, if anything at all. It would have been nice if the movie brought it up.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Science-Fiction of Battleship

   The "board" game is not Science-Fiction... at all... ever. Maybe Electronic Battleship, but that's just because the player (you) can face off against the computer (SkyNet) without the need of another human player. That seems a little Science-Fiction-y to me, especially at a time when the best home gaming console was the Atari 2600. I can only guess as to why the makers of the movie decided aliens need to be the opposing force in the movie. It was already taking place during THE naval exercise, known as RIMPAC (which is actually real). Why, then add aliens?

   Primariy what makes this movie Sci-Fi is the alien invasion motif. The timeline of events is as follows:

2005- "Planet G" is discovered, a terrestrial world in the Goldilocks Zone of its solar system

2006- NASA finishes the Beacon Project which is a laser communication system to signal "Planet G"

2012- During RIMPAC 2012 an alien invasion begins in the Pacific

   I can't wrap my brain around a direct need to fire what looks like the Deathstar Superlaser at a planet. Was it a message with information, or, as the name implies, was it a beacon just advertising "Earth is here and we are listening?" But we already have been broadcasting radio and TV signals from Earth for the past 100 years. I guess that's not good enough. Part of the technology involves three antennae, on the hillsides of Oahu, that "combine" into one laser mid-atmosphere and hit an amplifier satellite. It should be noted all with a limited window of use every 24 hours. Then the satellite fires the laser to "Planet G." There is some unexplained science here, since NASA has been using this signal for six years. Lots of things that require this to work are constantly in motion; the Earth (with Hawaii on it) spins, the amplifier shares an orbit with GPS satellites, "Planet G" moves around its star, and both our solar systems move relative to each other.

   This is an example of Super Science that Earth scientists in the movie manage to invent. I won't get into the fallacy of seeing lasers or hearing stuff in space. But I will get into the Speed of Light. Assuming that Project Beacon wasn't a faster-than-light (FTL) communication system and that the aliens themselves are not capable of warp drive/hyperspace, then this leaves a maximum distance to the alien solar system at 3 Light Years (LYs) away (6 divided by 2 for math people). There are no stars that close to Earth. Proxima Centauri is the nearest star at 4.2LY and until we have better space telescopes there appears to be no terrestrial planets in its habitable zone. If the aliens have warp drive then that gives them a maximum of 6LY distance. There are only four stars that close to us, the three stars that compose Alpha Centauri and Barnard's Star. The movie never fills in any blanks but I like Barnard's Star for their origin.

   It's never explained but I think the aliens have a warp drive. As the movie plays out, the alien's primary concern becomes the use of Project Beacon to call for help or report on first contact. It would be almost useless to "phone home" if you weren't getting a response in six Earth years. Also, for whatever reason we only see the aliens when they pass Saturn. Their approach involves breaking up the ship into five parts, entering Earth's atmosphere, then (after splash-landing) combining back together. This all goes wrong when one of the ships collides with a satellite and breaks up in orbit. That at least shows us their ships are more delicate than one would expect. My guess is they never use satellites so they never thought to check for any on their approach to Earth.

   All of this is tracked by NASA from Saturn to Earth, showing all the planets in between in a nice line. That doesn't happen very often (on the galactic scale) but certainly isn't happening now. We also can't track things that far away. We're lucky to find Near Earth Asteroids (NEOs) days before passing near us. So NASA must have built a solar system scanning radar just in case we make contact. I kind of think that puts this movie in an alternate time line. By the way, when did NASA get the funding for these projects? Is that what happened to the manned space flight program? It got shelved to talk to aliens? Even the scientists involved thought it was a bad idea. As they put it "it would be like Columbus and the Indians, and we're the Indians."

   The ship that collided with a satellite breaks up and tumbles out of orbit spreading debris and at least one escape pod across the Earth, before crashing into Hong Kong. The rest off the four ships plunge separately into the Pacific off the coast of Hawaii and appear to rejoin into a larger ship. It turns out the crashed vessel is a communications ship, with paneling made from elements that don't appear on our Periodic Table. These panels are thought to serve the dual purpose of solar panels and communications antenna. All of our elements in our solar system were created by the previous star that went super-nova and formed the nebula which eventually formed our solar system 4.7 billion years ago. This implies wherever they get their material it ain't from the same nebula that we formed out of, even though their star is nearby (galactically speaking).

   The alien fleet is composed of a mother ship, three smaller combat vessels, and the aforementioned comms ship. After landing, the ship goes silent and floats in the ocean like an iceberg, more vertical than horizontal. And that's where the human cast of the movie gets involved. I don't know why, but the aliens wait for Hopper to touch their ship before launching an attack. Aliens by definition should have completely different thought processes, so that tends to be my go-to answer for weird alien behavior. It seems overly dramatic though. But first an enormous energy barrier is erected around the Hawaiian islands, reaching 300,000 feet up and 2 miles underwater. It blocks all conventional radio and telecommunications as well as destroying an F/A-18 that slams into it. Standard Sci-Fi force-field that blocks matter and energy. Not only that, but it also jams all communications within the bubble, too. Later in the movie a NASA scientist finds a weakness that allows a signal out so it isn't perfect. It also doesn't matter where the mother ship is, it just has to continue to beam energy straight up.

   The aliens have some powerful weapons systems, but for all their technology it doesn't come equipped with a guidance system. The "shell-pegs" they fire head to a predicted location, which works wonders only if the target isn't moving. Maybe it's something they learned from space combat but never adapted to atmospheric fighting. And to make matters stranger, they never overtly attack unless threatened, but will destroy potential targets if their heads-up-display (HUD) highlights them. The aliens wear a completely armored suit reminiscent of the Master Chief's armor in Halo. The helmet's HUD (which we see a lot of) filters everything they view as either green (ignore) or red (do something like destroy it). I never once got the impression the aliens were in control of their data. I think a computer was dictating all their actions, like when a video game shows you important targets and directions to go. This is disastrously stupid, because as we quickly see when the destroyer USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53) turns its guns away from an alien ship, they are no longer considered a threat. No thought of destroying it just in case it's a future threat. In fact, during a couple skirmishes the destroyer's main weapons are able to fatally damage alien combat vessels and dodge a few attacks. No shielding around their ships, just shielding around the battle-space.

   Their other weapon is a drone (which looks like a spiky ball with spiky, extendable tentacles) that homes in on designated targets but has a really strange Rule of Engagement (ROE). The computers running everything may not understand life that is different than the aliens. In one scene a "battle drone spheres" nearly kills a little-leaguer during a game, but redirects its attack on a bridge abutment, which kills dozens of people. Why the difference? I think the computer in charge doesn't understand life and just wants the destruction of infrastructure and war machines, but it knows enough about life not to kill it directly. Weird. This is almost Borg thinking. Only get involved when you need something or there is a threat. So why come to Earth in the first place? Probably because we fired what looked like the Deathstar Superlaser at them which is determined to be a threat. Or the movie is just poorly written. There is also a sonic weapon which implies they do sometimes need to fight in an atmosphere. I also think the machinery (and maybe the AI) was stolen from the Decepticons.

   Interestingly they don't appear on radar or sonar, which would be invaluable in space. Maybe they use a computer in space combat just to help target opponents better. These seem like wasted concepts on a planet, though. They can be physically seen, but somehow the hull absorbs sound and energy. Maybe they aren't used to being shot at with actual shells from actual barrels. This eventually means during the movie that both forces have to guess where on a grid the enemy might be, and fire on them. That sounds more like Battleship. Another odd feature is the apparent ability to hover, but not glide over the ocean. The combat ships "hop" from place to place, but the "battle drone spheres" can fly no problem and they aren't exactly aerodynamic. The mother ship just seems to drift in the water. How exactly were they supposed to get back into space? Or was this a permanent settlement? For that matter, how was Project Beacon supposed to help them if the force field jams all communications? Were they going to drop it for a second, send a six-year signal, and hope the entire US Navy fleet doesn't manage to sneak in?

   The aliens themselves (never named) are bipedal with, I think, four opposable thumbs, and chin spikes. Hopper and Nagata manage to get a helmet off of an unconscious alien, which quickly wakens. So, these they have similar atmospheric needs as pressure and breathable air, but no discussion of diseases or immune systems or anything that would make H.G. Wells proud. At least a character put a helmet on and learns its just an expensive sun shield, that the aliens are light sensitive. Odds are this means they're from a dim-starred planet. This is three knocks against them that leads to their eventual loss by the end of the movie. The suits they wear have "switch-blade" appendages with different tools snapping out for different needs, but other than armor, I don't know why the aliens don't just have sunglasses.

   There are a couple strange actions from the aliens which lead me to believe they don't know what they're doing. What was first contact supposed to be, if they still had a comm ship? Did they think we attacked them in orbit? Are they that stupid or are they a war-like culture anyway? It one point a scared NASA scientist and an alien meet face-to-face and he's shaking badly. The alien reaches out to calm him. What? The alien didn't kill him? He was green, a non-threat. Even though he had the device to communicate through the jamming he was still allowed to live because the HUD showed green. An alien even mind-melds with Hopper, imparting some kind of imagery about a space battle or a ground campaign, but it's hard to determine if it is the past or a visual interpretation of their plan for the Earth. Human and alien minds shouldn't mix easily so it's okay by me if the visuals are confusing. The same thing happened in Mass Effect.

   In the end, with all their technology, the alien fleet was destroyed by a satellite and 20th Century artillery. Everyone is happy by the end that the alien threat is vanquished, but don't they think some aliens might notice their scouting trip to Earth disappeared? Once again, a poorly written movie.