Sunday, 26 February 2012

Jupiter, the Moon and Venus

DSC02920 by Dr Yool
DSC02920, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.

A nice line-up of planets and the Moon this evening. It got a little hazy before I could snap this one off, but such is life.

Oscars 2012

I've not seen enough of this year's Best Picture nominees to make a good stab at the winner - or my preferred winner - this time around. Unlike last year, where we'd actually seen 7/10 of the nominees by the time the awards rolled round (and we've now seen 9/10), this year we've struck out at only 3/9. In part because some haven't had much of an opening in UK cinemas, and in part because quite a few aren't all that appealing.

That said, none of the unseen 6/9 are really jumping out to be seen to my mind, so I'm going to call it anyway based on the three that we have seen. The Descendants, while a perfectly enjoyable film, just doesn't cut it for me. Midnight in Paris, while easily Woody Allen's most enjoyable film in a while, is just too slight a film to win. But The Artist has much more to recommend it. True, it's largely a light comedy that flatters Hollywood, but it does it so cleverly, so affectionately and with such wit that it's a shoo-in for me (as already noted).

I guess I'll find out how prescient I've been when the radio clicks on first thing tomorrow morning.

Battlestar Galactica

Finally wrapped up Battlestar Galactica this evening. It's been a long while coming, and while the series hasn't been all sweetness and light, overall I think that we both enjoyed it. Which comes as a little bit of a surprise given: (a) science fiction is basically pulp to C; and (b) how religious the series has gotten as time has passed - by the end it's all but introduced The Supreme Being as an on-screen character.

But any uneasiness with this latter aspect of the show is at least partially offset, for me at any rate, by the presentation of said heavenly presence in strictly deist terms. While the humans have an arcane, polytheist religion prescribed in a hokey book, the real deal is revealed in very non-specific terms. In fact via little more than various vague, but fulfilled, prophetic dreams and a handful of quasi-angelic characters. And - in an enjoyable twist - this religion is much more in line with the beliefs of the Cylons than those of their human oppressors-turned-oppressed. A nice touch indeed.

In terms of how the series was finally wound up, I thought there were a few other nice touches. Per my earlier missive concerning favoured themes, I was particularly pleased by how, in the end, the robotic Centurian Cylons, a group looked down upon by both humans and humanoid Cylons alike, finally won their freedom. And we both really liked the closing, far future coda that returns to the inevitability, or perhaps otherwise, of historical cycles.

I still wonder what happened to the Cylon "plan", however. Even mention of this was quietly dropped from the opening credits sequence. But the piling on of spooky coincidences and (semi-) satisfyingly-resolved prophecies made up for this - or at least distracted me from it. I know there's some TV movie that picks up on this, and we will get around to watching it, but I still reckon that the writers never really had an idea for this at all.

Overall, a recommendable series. It gets lost in the doldrums from time to time, and does wind up being pretty overtly religious in its resolution, but in a surprisingly non-offensive manner. I hope I'm not going soft!

Friday, 17 February 2012


Another entry in the unsurprisingly under-populated zom-rom-com genre, Zombieland. This time the action takes place in a US devastated by mad cow disease, rechristened by the narrator as Zombieland. Essentially it's a comedic - if post-apocalyptic - road-trip that plays the zombie holocaust as a backdrop for four characters doing whatever they like. It doesn't manage to quite sustain the comedy as well as Shawn of the Dead, but its well-played by its leads, particularly Woody Harrelson, and it doesn't outstay its welcome. The one part I really didn't warm to, but which I've seen flagged up as brilliant in reviews, is the cameo of Bill Murray playing himself. It didn't seem even half as funny to me as it's been praised, and just served to tip the comedy too far into silly. But it's a short interlude (and is terminated nicely disrespectfully), so was eminently tolerable.

Grade: B (low +2 on the Leeper Scale)

Monday, 13 February 2012

Aliens vs. Predator

As well as offering the enticing prospect of graphic ultra-violence between gruesome extraterrestrial intelligences in exotic extraterrestrial locales, the welcome appearance of the most recent Aliens vs. Predator video-game in my Christmas stocking last year (thank you Duncan, Jennifer and Ava) affords the opportunity to gambol briefly across my videogaming history with Aliens and Predators down the years. Sad to say, this is not an especially short history. A fact that I doubt will come as much of a surprise to those who know me offline.

Aliens: Seconds away, and we're off to a great start with a primitive - but exceedingly effective - FPS that sees the player guiding a team made up of the cast of Aliens through the Alien-infested colony. Moving room to room, the player pans their smartgun to locate doors and take care of offending Aliens (see picture) and Facehuggers. Though 8-bit, and more than a little spartan, this did a great job - for its time - of turning the player into a jittery wreck every time the motion sensor screamed that a member of the team was in danger.

Aliens (US Edition): A rather more literal take on the film this time, with a series of very different sub-games taking the player through various scenes from the movie. As some were much better than others - the worst being a PACMAN-esque journey through a crude maze - it was hard to get very excited about this title, even if it did let you use a (poorly-rendered) cargo-loader (see picture).

Predator: With titles like this, one remembers the 8-bit days without the encumbrance of rose-tinted spectacles. A side-scrolling journey through the South American jungle whose flimsy connection to the film consists of occasional "therm-o-vision" sections (see picture) and an unconvincing Predator sprite at the end (who I never did manage to kill). But, sadly, not far off the mark for what passed for video-game tie-ins in the late 1980s. And still there are some who insist there's no such thing as progress ...

Aliens versus Predator: Now we're talking. Though its various missions weren't always tied together especially well in terms of narrative (e.g. the Predator's random stop-off on Fury 161), it was easily a quantum leap forwards for titles including Aliens and/or Predators. Much like the very first title above, it's also extremely effective in the fright department, and makes simply excellent use of light effects and sound to turn the player's nerves to jelly. And it marries Alien-action with Predator-action in a way that makes them seem like they were always meant to be together - something the one film that I've seen singularly failed at. Further, it has the singular honour of being the only game I've ever paid twice for - once when it was originally released, and again when Valve released a patched modern version.

Aliens versus Predator 2: A worthy sequel from a different developer, but just not quite as visceral as its predecessor. This time the narrative is much more coherent, with a much more developed plot that even brings the three storylines together at one point. But the combat feels somehow more at arms length, it's not helped by so-so weapons, and it's simply never as frightening. The Aliens, in particular, aren't done half as well as in the earlier game. That said, it does get extra points for beginning the Alien campaign with a Facehugger section that finishes up with you biting through the chest of an unfortunate colonist.

Aliens versus Predator 2: Primal Hunt: Ouch! A seriously misjudged expansion pack that contains some embarrassingly bad new content in places. The central idea isn't a bad one - basically it neatly ties up a number of loose ends from the earlier game. But the execution is pretty weak - particularly where the Predator campaign takes in some local wild life (see picture). Still, as a £3.99 purchase from eBay, I can't really complain too loudly.

So, after all that, where does the new Aliens vs. Predator release leave us? Nowhere particularly new in terms of Alien and Predator lore. As usual, evil corporate humans are trying to turn the Aliens into weapons, while noble marine humans pick up the pieces. As usual, the Aliens just want to protect their hive, oh, and grab some juicy new hosts along the way. And, as usual, the Predators turn up to clean up the mess caused by the humans and to partake in a spot of hunting along the way. Though it's actually produced by the same developers as the original AvP title, the storyline takes much more of a front seat this time around, and in many respects it feels much more like AvP2. It still isn't quite up to the horrific standards of the original in terms of making the player jump, but it's a definite step up from AvP2 on this point, and it makes none of the glaring mistakes that characterise AvP2:PH.

And, technically, everything is pretty much in place. Everywhere - and everyone - is rendered well (Alien and Predator butchery possible too well!). The range of environments - whether dusty, swampy or corridory - is broad and well-realised, and all of the combatants look the part. The Aliens, in particular, are much better here than they've been before. And combat is doled out in the usual manner between species. With the marine, you try to keep enemies as far from you as possible; as an Alien, you do the complete reverse; and as the Predator, you chop and change with the foes and what they're packing. The latter species is still probably my favourite, as I like alternating between long-range sniping and close-up wrist-blading. And the game's requisite nods to both film series are all present and correct, and appropriate in their number. So all of the usual tropes make solid appearances - arrogant marines, furious fire-fights, ambiguous androids, tense prey-stalking, malevolent corporates, infamous head-bites, honourable Predators, et cetera. No sign of a cargo-loader though.

However, there are a few issues with gameplay that leave a little to be desired. In the case of weaponry, the smartgun is much lamer and far less satisfying than in previous outings. Gone are the days of satisfyingly severing Alien extremities with a convincing-sounding burst of bullets. And the Predator's pistol and, more significantly, his (or is it her?) speargun have been left behind on the home planet. One of the singular joys of earlier titles was the chance to make decapitating head-shots from afar, and then collecting the spherical trophy on the way passed. Not so much here. The Predator makes do instead with a strange lance-like device, but I found it disappointingly over-effective to use - where's the fun in scoring an easy kill over a carefully-targeted head-shot?

Another deficit lies in the intelligence of the human NPCs - or, rather, its opposite. They're alright once they get into combat (i.e. when you're too busy dodging bullets to notice), but they behave shockingly foolishly when they're being stalked. As long as they haven't been attacked in the last 10 seconds, they wander around seemingly with nary a care in the world - not even being especially fazed by the discovery of the corpses of their friends. Occasionally one will be hard-coded to behave differently - for instance, to do something sensible like run away and hide - but generally they behave like fish in a barrel patiently waiting to be shot. The developer's solution to this is to tool the human NPCs up with weaponry that can make short shrift of careless Aliens or Predators, but that doesn't really compensate for some unrealistically dumb foes.

Ultimately, Aliens vs. Predator is not much more than a refreshing dip back into the violently bloodthirsty world(s) of Aliens and Predators. Bar some improved visuals and changed weapons, it's not radically different from the first AvP title I played all those years ago. In fact, compared to most of the other titles that I've played of late, most notably the likes of BioShock and Fallout 3, it's something of a retro-throwback to the last century. There's very little freedom or incentive to explore and nothing like modern levels of characterisation or storytelling. Within the tight confines of a simple, linear structure (both story and map), you run around and shoot, stab or bite things. And that, basically, is it.

But all that said, taken on its own terms, it does still tick the relevant boxes. If you're looking for a straightforward blast with familiar cinematic foes, this is an enjoyable diversion. And it would, to be honest, actually be quite difficult for an Alien versus Predator title to break out of the mould that's been established over the past couple of decades of films and games. The nature of the series is to orbit tightly around a well-defined core of (faux) sci-fi action and horror, with practically no latitude for deviation from the formula. It's difficult to imagine any alternative format that would simultaneously satisfy fans, stay true to canon and avoid causing the licence-holders restless nights. One could imagine a more sprawling gameplay style - Grand Theft Aliens, perhaps - but neither the films nor the games to date probably have enough story content to stretch out to that. An intense burst of hunting, running, shooting and biting is about all that's do-able.

Judged on that basis, the 10-20 hours of gameplay in this Aliens vs. Predator is perfectly acceptably bill-fitting. Just don't buy it full price.

P.S. Actually, one angle that none of the games have yet taken, but which appears in both the original Aliens vs. Predator graphic novel and the first film, is that of the humans and Predators uniting to defeat the common Alien enemy. So perhaps there's still life in the old dog?

Friday, 10 February 2012

Viva La Evolution!

Two of the themes that I find most stirring, whether in the real, books or cinema, are "the evil that humans do" and "the freeing of the oppressed".

By the former, I mean that, as a biologist, I'm routinely appalled by our (= humanity's) self-satisfaction, and by the unthinking view that our lives are, without doubt, the most important aspect of the universe. So I derive a modicum of spiteful satisfaction from reports or tales that show us in our true light, probably completely unreasonably. As regards the latter, I suspect I'm a little more close to the norm in enjoying stories, fictional or otherwise, in which the much-put-upon throw off their shackles and reshape the order of things.

So, playing strongly to both of these themes, tonight's LOVEFiLM DVD, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was right up my alley. And somewhat unexpectedly so since the Apes series, while occasionally thoughtful, hasn't tended in these directions before. But the film's charting of the rise of Caesar from the capture of his pregnant mother in Africa, through to his triumphant escape from San Francisco definitely ticked my boxes. And the film does, for once, good service by the 1968 original, linking to it unobtrusively while also cleverly creating its own backstory as to how and why Earth came to be ruled by apes.

All that said, and even given its themes, it's probably still one that'll appeal most to science fiction fans.

Grade: A- (high +2 on the Leeper Scale)