Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Mandate of Earth

The Mandate of Earth is a Sci-Fi novel released on March 17th, 2015 by indie author, game programmer, and one of my personal heroes, Johnathan S. Harbour.
I'm a member of John's forums, which I've visited frequently for years.
I've been kinda busy most recently, so I haven't been visiting the forum as much as I did in the past. But I make it a habit to try and visit it at least once a month if possible, just to keep up with the community.
And there I discovered John had published this book, and was offering a free copy to regular members of his forums.
And since then, this book has dominated my time for the last two-and-a-half weeks. I intended to have it up on the twelfth of April, but I didn't get to the end by that point, thanks to the PDF readers on my Nook refusing to read past page 35.
And the reason this is being published mid-week, instead of last Sunday as I usually do is thanks in part to the other PDF reader on my Nook refusing to read past page 115. And the fact that I can't look at a white screen with black text without having to take long breaks. That's an issue I have with reading books on an LCD screen, the fact that I can't read them for long periods of time without needing to take a break.
Now, while the cover immediately struck me as kinda cheap-looking, the book itself was fascinating to read.
I'm a science-fiction lover, I will admit. I've never really been able to get into hard Sci-Fi, though. I was always more of a Star Wars or Star Trek kinda Sci-Fi guy.
Pretty much every hard Sci-Fi novel I've read gets a little too into the reality of the science, and doesn't really let the fiction part of the book shine through. And they usually end with humanity using up all of the resources in existence, and then the heat-death of the universe, or something along those lines.
Or everything evolving to a bizarre and incomprehensible energy being with the last of humanity aghast with what they've done to the universe and what they've become. And that's been the fundamental plot of almost every hard Sci-Fi novel I've ever read.
Mandate doesn't really have that problem. It keeps its focus on the characters, and their actions, rather than trying to make some grand statement about the end of time that winds up being more depressing than meaningful.
The book starts out at some point in what I presume is the near future, the way Sci-Fi tends to do.
To the advantage of Mandate, the future presented isn't too outlandish. And the progression of time, while somewhat abrupt, does flow pretty nicely.
The main character is a guy named Jack Seerva, an inventor and philanthropist with a dream of taking humanity to the stars.
Throughout his life, he's built a company with the express purpose of funding research to take humanity into the rest of the solar-system.
And then, boom. A comet hits the earth.
And annihilates a city, while also causing massive destruction along its path.
So, Jack and his company decide to amp up their production, and manage to "Bootstrap" their way into space in an astoundingly short period of time. And in a relatively realistic sort of way.
As time goes on, events unfold in such a way that I can't help but compare them to human history. A seemingly random series of issues come up in such a way that it strikes me as a realistic depiction of the progression of human history. Or human future, as the case may be.
I think the best part about this novel is how it presents the events contained within. An issue I have with a lot of hard Sci-Fi is the fact that presentation usually comes second to the science. The fact that this book stays within the realms of feasibility without needing a physics or engineering degree to understand all of the explanations. Then again, I am admittedly a huge nerd, so that might be my science education showing.
What I really like about this book is the fact that it has a good focus on the characters, rather than getting caught up in the events, and leaving the characters kinda bland.
Even with such a large cast as Mandate has, every one of them seems like someone who could actually exist. Sort of like how The Hunger Games managed to make its cast seem like a group of actual people. If I'd been able to read the book non-stop without needing long breaks, I might have had it all finished in a day, the way I did with The Hunger Games.
Even the most outlandish bits of story are still pretty reasonable in presentation and explanation.
Speaking of explanation, I was astounded by the elegance of it all. A lot of Sci-Fi relies on clunky dumps of exposition to justify their utterly impractical technology.
Considering that the level of technology in Mandate isn't too far-removed from where we are now, compared to how certain novels approach it, it doesn't require a ton of exposition.
That and the fact that the biggest leaps in technology tend to happen on-screen makes for a consistent flow.
Although I will have to disagree with John on one count, I don't think that computer mice will ever really go out of style, or be replaced by touchscreens, since the general consensus seems to be that touchscreens are fidgety and imprecise.
The good thing was that I didn't really have to make any big leaps of faith to allow the story to make sense. I feel that it all moves pretty naturally. It goes from us being an earthbound society to having a foothold in the universe without having to skip a whole lot.
Now, I might as well move on from talking about the pacing, and actually spend a little time talking about the plot. I'll try my best to not give any major spoilers away.
A lot of changes come on because of the comet impact, and Jack speeds up the launch process to get essentially a "backup" of humanity into space just in case a major extinction event happens.
Despite some criticism for their actions, Seerva Inc. keeps on with their mission to bring space-travel into the mainstream.
The complete series of events is a bit depressing, and winds up weighing heavily upon the characters.
But eventually, as I said before, they do manage to establish what appears to be a successful colony in space.
The book then ends on a cliffhanger, leaving the fate of the characters in question.
All in all, I liked The Mandate of Earth, and I'm not just saying that because the author is someone I look up to. I think it's a pretty good read, and well worth picking up. Considering this is a self-published work, it's certainly a massive step-up from the pack.
In the end, I give it an 8.4* rating.
If you guys are interested, here's the amazon link to the book. It's 25% off today:

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Cowboys & Aliens

I remember thinking that this movie was going to be really good back when it came out. I saw the trailer in 2011, and I figured that it was going to be a good movie to watch. Then, a few months later, the reviews started rolling in, and I was surprised by how badly it was received. Looking back at the revenue, it only made just over its $163 million-dollar budget. It brought in about $175 million.
Thinking back, they probably should have chosen a different week to release it. The Comic-Con screening was only four days after the release of Captain America: The First Avenger.
Which is one of my favorite movies of all time.
And you know something else? Deathly Hallows Part 2 was released earlier that same month. I've never seen it, and I don't really know if it was any good, but I know it's not a smart move to release a movie, even a movie with a cast like this one had in the same month as major installments in blockbuster franchises.
So let's just say that despite the star-power of the cast, and the fact that this is probably the only movie where you can see James Bond and Indiana Solo team up with Quorra and Justin Fleegman to fight aliens.
Hey I just realized, this is the closest thing we're ever gonna get to a Galaxy Quest, Tron and Star Wars Crossover!
Too bad they chose to release it in the same month as the finale of one of the highest-profile fantasy epics since The Lord of the Rings, and what might just be both one of the greatest war-movies and superhero movies of all time.
And despite my opinion of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, that movie was still going strong well into the next month. And Final Destination 5 was coming out at the start of the next month, which would be joined literally the next day by Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Two massively grossing movies getting released a few weeks after it, combined with one of the hugest films of all-time being released the month before, and another of the hugest films of all-time being released in the same month with one of the greatest films of all-time....
Yeah, even if they'd ironed out a few of the problems I wound up having with the film, this movie was never destined for any kind of success, despite the sheer power of the cast. It was released at a really bad time in 2011, it had some big issues with presentation and storytelling, and it lacked a decent ending. I'll get into this later in the review.
But yeah, this was definitely gonna drop right off the charts pretty quickly. Sad to say something like that about a movie that's actually pretty good, but it's the truth.
So, let's talk about the plot.
Daniel Craig's character wakes up in the desert with a mysterious wound in his torso, and a massive silver bracelet on his left wrist that certainly doesn't belong in 1873. He runs afoul of some dudes, and winds up leaving them all for dead, and taking their weapons and horses.
He rides into a local town, and gets locked up, because he looks like a wanted outlaw by the name of Jake Lonergan. And because he assaulted the local mafia don's son because the kid was being a stupid and spoiled brat.
The aforementioned mafia don is actually a former Civil War Colonel and cattleman by the name of Woodrow Dollarhyde, played by Harrison Ford. They run into each other because Lonergan apparently stole a bunch of gold from Dollarhyde, and the Colonel wants to know where he stashed it. He also wants to punish him for hurting his son, because despite the fact that he despises how his son lives his life, he still wants to try and find some way to whip him into shape, and he can't do that if his son is dead.
During a standoff between Dollarhyde's men and those of the local Sheriff's, the aliens strike and abduct many a citizen of the town, Dollarhyde's son included.
Because Lonergan has a pretty effective weapon against those aliens, in the form of his mysterious bracelet, the townsfolk include him in the posse they round up to go get the abductees.
Fortunately, the following scenes are all decently made, at least until they get to the chase-sequence, where it transitions into a strange hallucination, akin to that one similar scene from The Big Lebowski, only more perplexing, and a lot less funny.
In this chase, Lonergan rescues an alien in the form of a beautiful woman, and around a campfire with some Native Americans, who had some of their people abducted by the aliens.
The woman is apparently some kind of Time Lord, since she manages to come back from the dead through a burst of golden-light.
She explains what the aliens are up to, and that her people were killed by those aliens.
See, I don't usually have an issue with exposition, but it has to be executed well. And this has been executed poorly. It's boring, and I wish it had been either cut entirely, or heavily re-written into something that:
A) Made a bit more sense
B) Didn't bring the pacing to a stone-cold stop.
And, C) Hadn't brought up some troubling issues with the ending.
Honestly, I think that the alien woman should have been written out entirely, because her presence and abilities raise a whole bunch of questions that are never answered.
From this point on, the movie picks up a bit, with the alliance of townsfolk, Apache's, and lone alien woman locating the ship that the aliens used to get to Earth.
They put together a decent plan to rescue the townsfolk and prevent the aliens from taking all the gold on Earth, and laying siege to another planet.
Jake goes back to his old gang and forces them to help the ramshackle defense force out with the siege.
Dollarhyde and the Apache's lead the ground assault, while Jake, and the alien girl, named Ella, sneak into the ship and free the captives.
And it's towards the end of this battle where things started getting real dumb. Ella takes Jake's wrist-gun to blow up the reactor core, instead of just taking one of the ones from the many, many dead aliens with the same kind of guns. And this leaves Jake defenseless aside from his useless human guns.
And then everyone acts like Ella's dead, despite the fact that she completely reconstructed her body earlier in the film.
Because his love interest is dead, Jake decides to leave Dollarhyde's town.
Dollarhyde offers Jake a job, but Jake turns it down and leaves.
And I could not understand why he did this. Why would you leave when you could have a decent job and a decent life in the town? And maybe they could have shown Ella coming back to life (again)and Jake could have settled down, and the ending might have had some kind of impact aside from pretty much everyone having resumed the state they were in at the beginning of the film.
All in all, I think something must have gone wrong in production. The issue being that the whole thing could have been improved with a few small changes to the script, and it would have become a much better movie.
And as it is, it also seems like a movie that's had a few scenes chopped out and re-written to be a lot shorter.
Maybe being about a half-an-hour longer could have improved upon the plot, but that's no guarantee to that effect.
Honestly, I still think it's worth watching. Rent it or borrow it from the library. There are certainly worse ways to spend two hours. There are also better ways, but I think this is still a decent film, despite the issues.
It certainly deserves a sequel that improves upon everything in this film, and more. But I don't think it will get one.
In the end, I'll give it a 7.2* rating.
Funnily enough, I had a book I was planning to review this week, but my packed schedule, combined with some issues with my Nook, prevented me from finishing it in time. As such, I had to hurriedly re-write an article from last year that I forgot to publish, namely this one.
So, hopefully I will see you guys next week with my review of that book!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Transformers: Age of Extinction is the latest installment of the mega-successful, but polarizing live-action Transformers series.
Released in June of 2014, the movie managed to make back a whopping five times its budget.
And honestly, I can see why.
My opinions of the second and third movies in this series are well on record, so I won't go into the details too much here.
Suffice to say, that I didn't particularly like them.
I thought they were pretty good at their best moments, and a little insulting at their worst.
But I really liked the first one. The story was well-told, the characters were well-written, and the whole film was competently made, especially compared to what came after it.
Honestly, they weren't quite Alien 3 level of bad, but they weren't X-Men 2 level of good either.
And now we're at the third sequel. They've ditched the Witwicky's, Mikaela, Sam's replacement girlfriend, and most connection to the rest of the movies in the series, aside from The Transformers themselves, and the fact that the events in this film were directly affected by what happened in Dark of the Moon.
Our new human lead is Cade Yaeger, played by Mark Wahlberg. A struggling inventor and single father.
Cade's story starts when he starts rummaging around in an old theater with his annoying stoner assistant, Lucas Flannery. He talks to the theater owner and buys a few old cameras.
And while fooling around with a football, he finds a rusty and broken Marmon 97 semi-truck that had crashed into the theater years prior.
He buys the truck and tows it home, where his daughter, Tessa, has just gotten back from school.
Cade gets to work on the truck in his barn, and finds out something strange about it.
It is way too high-tech for its age. It doesn't run on a standard engine or fuel system.
Cahe, Lucas and Tessa suspect that it's a Cybertronian. Lucas and Tessa want to turn it over in case it's an injured Decepticon, but Cade wants to fix it up and see how it works.
After some effort and macro-surgery, they manage to revive the Autobot, which turns out to be Optimus Prime.
Optimus was attacked in Mexico City after the Chicago incident, and took on the form of the Marmon because his original disguise became too well-known. Unfortunately, that didn't help him get away, as he was heavily wounded, and wound up in the Cybertronian equivalent of a coma.
Cade does his best to fix up Optimus, but some government black-ops group named Cemetery Wind shows up looking for Optimus.
And this was one of the defining moments of the movie for me.
As one might be able to guess, these guys aren't here to help Optimus out. They're not affiliated with NEST, and Sam Witwicky is not among the group.
Cade hides Optimus and goes out to run interference with the soldiers. This doesn't work, and the soldiers put guns to Cade and Tessa's heads, threatening to shoot them if they don't tell where Optimus is.
Up until this point, I wasn't entirely sold on the movie. There were some issues with annoying characters, Mark Wahlberg's acting was a little shaky, and the five-year time-skip from the end of Dark of the Moon almost lost me.
But at this point is where the movie picked up.
Optimus Prime is hidden away, essentially safe from danger if he plays his cards right. But these people helped him, they found him, refused to turn him over to certain death, and are still, even in the face of their own imminent demises, are refusing to turn him over.
Optimus badly injured, and he knows that saving them could kill him.
And do you know what he did?
He saves them anyways. Broken, hurt, and running low on resources and fighting spirit alike, he gets up, and helps them. He refuses to quit.
Because life, is the right of all sentient beings. Because his name is Optimus Prime, and that is what he stands for. Across the universe, the Autobots fight, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, to protect others.
And he is their leader. He refuses to let these people who helped him in his time of need down. Optimus Prime gets up and fights, even in the gravest of circumstances to protect the lives of innocents.
Because when all hope is lost, Optimus Prime is there to rekindle that fighting spirit. Optimus Prime fought and died to protect planet earth. And he was willing to fight and die again to protect those who helped him in his time of need.
Optimus Prime fights, and he does his best. And for the most part, he succeeds.
With help Tessa's boyfriend, Shane, Optimus and the Yaeger's manage to escape Cemetery Wind, and flee to rally the last remaining Autobots to one final showdown.
Cade finds out they've frozen his bank account, with the help of a drone he took from Cemetery Wind in the previous fight, and confirms that they're looking for them, when soldiers show to take them in.
Unfortunately, they don't manage to escape this, and Shane's car winds up getting destroyed, and Lucas gets melted by a grenade thrown by a Cybertronian bounty-hunter named Lockdown (Voiced by Mark Ryan).
With help from Optimus, they manage to escape to an abandoned gas-station en-route to rally the four remaining Autobots. There they stock up on supplies, and stay for the night.
The next day, they make their way into the desert. On the road, Optimus scans another semi-truck, and transforms into a shiny new form.
This scene was pretty awesome to watch as well.
 In the desert, they meet up with Bumblebee, Hound (Voiced by John Goodman) Drift (Voiced by Ken Watanabe) and Crosshairs (Voiced by John DiMaggio)
Cade figures out that the drone he took was made by a company called Kinetic Solutions Incorporated, or KSI. They manage to pinpoint the company headquarters in the rebuilt Chicago.
And from the footage they pulled from the Drone, they find out that KSI has been killing Autobots and Decepticons alike.
Footage of Leadfoot and Ratchet (Voiced by Robert Foxworth) being killed is accessed, and Optimus vows to kill the man behind it all, Harold Attinger (Played by Kesley Grammer)
And this is when you realize he is seriously mad. And that Attinger is a dead man. It takes a lot to make Optimus Prime mad, and there's no better way to seal your own death warrant than hurting his friends.
They infiltrate the KSI compound, and begin looking into what they're working on.
Among many other things, they appear to be making artificial Transformers out of the Transformium they've harvested from Autobots, Decepticons, and mineral deposits alike.
Despite valiant efforts by Autobots and humans alike, they get found out, and Attinger gives chase with two of KSI's prototype Transformers, Stinger (Based on Bumblebee) and Galvatron (Based on Optimus Prime and Megatron)
While Bumblebee takes on his imposter, Stinger, Optimus is locked in combat with Galvatron. Optimus finds out that Galvatron doesn't have a spark (The Transformers equivalent of a soul, but something that can be physically destroyed) where other Cybertronians do.
During the fight, Lockdown injures Optimus, and hauls him off to his ship, taking Tessa with him.
While inside, Tessa grabs a tire-iron and fights off some of Lockdown's drones, while Lockdown jails Optimus with a group of unknown Transformers.
Lockdown explains that the creators of the Cybertronians has put a bounty on the head of Optimus Prime, and they're calling back their creations so they can rebuild the universe.
While Lockdown's henchmen give the members of Cemetary Wind a Seed (An alchemical device for creating Transformium) the remaining Autobots, along with Cade and Shane, sneak onto the ship.
Cade and Shane split off to find Tessa, while the Autobots go looking for Optimus.
The Autobots make their way to an escape pod where Lockdown keeps his trophy collection, and separate the ship as Lockdown jumps into Hyperspace.
Cade and Shane loot a weapons cache and manage to find something about their size, and escape the ship, joining up with Bumblebee and Crosshairs.
When they land, Optimus tells the others about what he felt while fighting Galvatron. The essence of his brother-in-arms turned enemy, Megatron. Brains, an Autobot they rescued from the KSI compound, confirms that Megatron repeatedly infected all of the Galvatron prototypes until he finally had a chance to break free from KSI control.
Optimus decides it's best to leave humanity with the mess they've created, thinking the last nine years a futile effort, but Cade convinces the Autobots to stay and fight.
Cade warns the KSI head , Joshua Joyce (Played by Stanley Tucci), about Attinger's plans to detonate the Seed in a populated city to seal humanities hatred of the Cybertronians, and he cuts ties with Attinger.
Funnily enough, that's similar to what Galvatron wants to do, use the Transformium to create more Decepticons. As it is, he just hijacks all of the KSI prototype Transformers and uses them as his army to beat down the human and Autobot resistance.
Attinger's right-hand-man, James Savoy (Played by Titus Welliver) goes after Joyce and the seed, with Galvatron hot on their trail.
Cade and the Autobots manage to get Joyce to safety, but the ship the Autobots took gets shot down before they can get the seed away from Earth, and Savoy catches up to them.
Cade and Savoy engage in combat across many rooftops, while the Decepticons close in on their position.
Optimus knows that they're outnumbered, so, working off something Lockdown told him, pulls a sword from the armory inside the ship they grabbed, and confirms something. I'm not sure what, but I think Optimus might have been one of the knights of the round.
He then sets free the other prisoners in Lockdown's trophy-room, who turn out to be the Dino-bots.
With that extra backup, the Autobots manage to subdue the Decepticon uprising, but Lockdown returns to reclaim his trophies.
Attinger has followed his now dead field-commander to the general location of the Autobots, and holds Cade at gunpoint, but Optimus makes good on his promise, and blasts Attinger away.
Unfortunately, Lockdown uses the sword Optimus pulled from the armory to impale him to a wall, just barely missing his spark.
Bumblebee arrives just in time, and he and Cade run interference while Shane and Tessa free Optimus from the wall.
Optimus kills Lockdown, and the Autobots finish off the remaining Decepticons. Galvatron retreats, vowing to come back and finish the fight.
Optimus sets the Dinobots free, and leaves them and the other Autobots to protect Earth, while he jets off into space with the seed in hand, set to confront the Creators.
All in all, this was an excellent movie. It started out a bit rocky, but really picked up after about twenty minutes.
And a good thing too, because this movie is almost three-hours long.
For the most part, my only issues with the movie are limited to that stretch of time. Mark Wahlberg is a fine actor for the most part, but his calm demeanor in the beginning was a little out-of-touch with the situation at hand. I'm not sure if it was an issue with direction or the script, or if the character was just trying to calm his daughter down by not panicking himself, but even if it was the latter, it still came off a little strange.
The best approach to that would have been a comment on how he was being so calm, and then maybe he could say something about not being calm inside.
Anyways, he's fine throughout the rest of the movie.
And honestly, I think some of the issues with Transformers 2 and 3 were the fact that the joke characters took up too much screentime. Fortunately, Brains doesn't make too many jokes.
And not to be cruel, but I think that Lucas's best scene was the one he died in. He didn't serve much purpose otherwise.
The most common complaint I've heard about this movie was that it didn't make much use of Steve Jablonsky's theme song for the series, known commonly as Arrival To Earth.
Honestly, I think the soundtrack arrangement was pretty spot-on. Arrival to Earth is a very upbeat song, suited for battles where the Autobots are winning, or where a victory is overwhelmingly in their favor.
And this isn't a very upbeat movie. Most of the time, the odds are stacked against the Autobots, and any victory can barely be called such.
But when they used it, it was very effective. That's the thing about iconic themes, they have to be used at the right time for the perfect effect. When Arrival to Earth starts playing in this movie, it's at the right moment, with the right effect. When it starts, Optimus rides Grimlock into battle, the tide of a hopeless fight turning, just when all hope seemed lost. When that song starts playing, you know they're gonna fight and win.
And even though they could have followed that up with The Touch for slightly greater effect, I think it worked fine as it was.
Age of Extinction is rated the lowest out of all of the live-action Transformers movies, with an 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. That's one point below Revenge of the Fallen, and eighteen points below Dark of the Moon, my personal pick for worst of the series.
Even my previous pick for best in the series, Transformers, is rated above it, with thirty-nine percentage points, placing it at a 57% rating.
And I think that's pretty unfair. Even though I think there was some room for improvement in some areas, I still like it better than Revenge of the Fallen or Dark of the Moon.
And even though Transformers is a movie I really liked, I have to say that this was slightly better.
In the end, I give Transformers: Age of Extinction a 10.1* rating.
Some may wish to dispute this, and I won't try to argue with them. There are a lot of people who don't like Michael Bay movies. I don't personally understand why, but I won't try to argue with them.
And do you know what? I think it might be as good as Days of Future Past.
This is Alex, signing off for now. I'll see you next week, and we'll see what I've got up for review!