Archive for December, 2008

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Top 5 geeky gift ideas

December 25, 2008

Twas the Night Before Christmas… well, okay, it’s very, very early in the a.m. when I’m posting this, so it’s technically Christmas Day, but as far as I’m concerned, until I hit the sack it’s still Christmas Eve and I can take one last shot at putting a wish list out there into the aether to try to get Santa’s attention before he finishes his rounds! Anyhow, amidst this season of family and togetherness and all that good stuff, a geek’s heart often turns to dreams of all the cool toys that old Father Christmas could be leaving under the tree. So here’s a list of a few SF-related things I’d put on my wish list, aside from the usual books and DVD’s, that is…

5. a replica Sonic Screwdriver
A cool little trinket to have amongs the pens and other brick-a-brack in my cubicle to garner more geek cred from fellow Doctor Who fans at the office.

4. steampunk Star Wars Lego
This piece of Lego awesomeness came to my attention courtesy of a recent Tidbits posting on SF Signal. I’d love to see them give the steampunk treatment to a Star Destroyer Lego set!

3. a Battlestar Galactica (new series) model of the Galactica
I saw one of these approximately foot-long beauties a couple of months ago at a local collectibles store. Sure was sweet – until I saw the $120 price tag. Tough to justify that kind of purchase when the same amount of money could buy a bunch of books, or some DVD’s, or, more practically, a couple of tanks of gas. The real pity was that the only BSG-related models that they did have in the store were a couple of flimsy self-assembly old-style Base Stars. Ah well.

2. a Tron frisbee
I searched high and low for something classic and cool like this when my wife and I were in Disneyland for our honeymoon a few years ago. No luck. The Mouse just wasn’t interested in setting aside a corner in one of the many gigantic gift shops down there for vintage stuff. I can only hope that when the sequel comes out eventually they’ll have merchandizing like this available again.

1. A Big Trouble in Little China “Dragon of the Black Pool” jacket
I stumbled across this ultimate piece of fan couture not to long ago when I came across the Wing Kong Exchange site. Being a huge fan of BTiLC, I was mighty tempted to order one of these jackets bearing the name of the hero’s restaurant, but with the Loonie once again sagging lower than the greenback, I’ll have to shelve that idea for the time being. Maybe I’ll make due with a “Pork Chop Express” sticker for my car. Sigh.

 So what SF stuff is on your holiday wish list (and remember, we’re not talking about books, DVD’s or games!) this year?

-And, on behalf of harrysaxon and myself, have a safe and happy holiday season!

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The top 5 SF remakes

December 18, 2008

It seems as SF fans we’ve been hit with a lot of remakes in TV and the movies over the past few years. Say what you will about lack of originality or Hollywood returning to the trough, my biggest beef has always been the fact that most of the remakes (or re-imaginings, to hoist the pretentious flag studios and directors frequently hide behind to get around having to cop to a lack of originality) tend to be pretty deep in the suckage. Last week’s failed attempt to reboot the classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (which, despite some weaknesses is still very much worth watching today and was in no need of a remake) added yet another splash in the great cinematic mud puddle of flops (and I’m not referring to any box office numbers here, I’m talking about the sheer lack of quality to the story). This recent embarassment has prompted many out there to highlight the litany of bad remakes. But after reading a few of those, I got to thinking about some of the remakes in TV and the movies that have worked over the years and are still worth watching. And so, this week’s list:

5. The Mummy
This remake of a black-and-white horror classic worked for all kinds of reasons: good special effects, plenty of laughs without detracting from the story, a couple of genuinely scary moments (if you wear glasses, don’t tell me you weren’t on the edge of your seat during the scene in the tomb in the first half of the movie where the mummy makes his first acquisitions), and lots of Indiana Jones-style action. The Mummy did what a summer popcorn flick was supposed to: give audiences a lot of fun. Still worth rewatching.

4. The Thing
I can’t say John Carpenter’s 80’s gore-fest is a film I want to watch often, but I can appreciate it for being a successful updating of a classic into the realm of modern horror. In typical Carpenter style, there’s plenty of tension, as well as some memorable lines: “I don’t know what that thing in there is, but it’s weird and it’s pissed off!” (perhaps not word-for-word accurate, but as close as I can recall off the top of my head after a long day)

3. Superman
For decades this comic book superhero had been featured in film and TV and pretty much done to death. But in 1978, Richard Donner and co gave wings to a movie that breathed new life into the character by retelling his origin story, and in doing so actually inspired a sense of wonder. Maybe there was something in the water in the back half of the 70’s that caused so many great SF films to be born, but despite its weaknesses (like Margot Kidder), the ’78 remake of Superman remains for me the standard by which all superhero movies are judged.

2. King Kong
Peter Jackson’s 2005 version, that is, not the titanic mistake of ’76 with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange (both of whom deserved to be in a much, much better movie). Jackson’s film is a love letter to the original that inspired him to get into cinema and it shows. While it’s a good deal longer than the original, Jackson’s version has all the fun, toothy stuff they probably wished they could have done back in the 30’s and does a great job of flushing-out the characters so that it’s more than just a giant monster movie. With the exception of the sequence on the pond in the park, this film is a real masterpiece.

1. the new Battlestar Galactica
What sets this show apart from the other features on this list isn’t so much that it’s a TV show based on a TV show (as opposed to a movie remaking an older movie or inspired by a comic or short story), it’s the level of improvement. All of the previous nominations have been based on competent, good, or very good predecessors, but BSG was born of suckage. I enjoyed the original ’79 TV series when I was a kid – because I was a kid and didn’t see just how bad it was. But a few years ago the concept evolved, rising out of the gooey slime of its inspiration and becoming one of the best damn TV shows. Ever. And one that’s worth rewatching. Sure, there’s a lot of argument about whether it has suffered from weak moments, but by and large it’s been consistently provocative and intelligent and is always very cool visually.

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My mind to your mind, my list to your list – bloginhood participates in a mind meld over on SF Signal

December 11, 2008

For a while now, SF Signal has been running an interesting feature called the Mind Meld, where they pose a question and invite various people with SF interests to weigh-in, then open the floor for other comments. This week, John and the boys were kind enough to invite me to take part!

This week’s question was “What were the best genre-related books, movies and/or shows you consumed in 2008?” They left it open for participants to list new stuff, as well as not-so-new fare – anything enjoyed this past year. The ‘meld got such a big response from participants, they had to break it into two posts. Here’s the link to Part 1, and here’s the link to Part 2. Lots of absorbing lists of bests from SF authors, editors, fans, critics and commentators of all stripes. Definitely worth the read (and I’m talking about worth while because of the smart stuff from everyone else on the list, not for my inane babbling).

Beyond the intellectual and entertainment value of the Mind Melds, I’ve also been drawn to them for a long time as a reader because they’re such a great source of referrals. Participants are always giving recommendations about this book or that film, most of them worth while. And since this Mind Meld focuses specifically on “the best” – it’s the best referral list you’re gonna see. It’s the uber stocking stuffer list for every geek this holiday season.

But don’t just go to SF Signal for the Mind Melds; be sure to go there for all their other good content, be it Mind Melds, author interviews, reviews, lists, clips, discussions, news, links, giveaways or the rest of it. Go there because it’s a cool site.

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The top 5 famous last words in SF

December 11, 2008

Sometimes an SF character’s best or most memorable piece of dialogue in a book or short story, TV show, or movie is their last piece of dialogue. Their death might come in less than a second or several hours/days later, but if they’re written just right (whether it’s something profound or banal), or maybe if they’re inextricably tied to an unforgettable scene or plot thread, those last words will haunt you for the rest of your life. Because there are so many possibilities dying to get on such a countdown, we’ve created three lists today: one for books and short stories, one for TV, and another for the movies. And so we give you the Top 5 Famous Last Words in SF.

IN THE MOVIES:

5. “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
 – Obi Wan “Ben” Kenobi, Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope
And he was right. By giving up the ghost, old Ben knew he could accomplish more as, well, a ghost. Creating a diversion that would allow Luke and the others to get away essentially sealed the fate of the Empire. The scene is most memorable though because by this point in the movie, the audience has invested a lot emotionally in Kenobi as the wise old teacher who takes the hero on his first step “into a larger world”.

4. “I am a leaf on the wind. Watch how I -”
-Wash, Serenity
This was a powerfully wrenching scene, even for moviegoers who weren’t Firefly fans. There are fans out there who are still upset (and in some cases still downright pissed off) about the pilot’s death. Wash was a good guy and had just saved the day by flying his friends through hell and getting them all down alive, and heroes like that don’t just die a redshirt death, do they? Well, if you’re trying to inject some level of reality into a film featuring a major battle (never mind if you’re trying to ramp-up the tension and create the feeling that anyone could buy it at any time), then, yeah, they do! It’s a war. People die. Even the good guys who you really like. And what made it harder to bear was that he wasn’t even allowed to finish being poetic before he was so brutally killed. Wash’s last words are certainly among the best in SF cinematic history.

3. “Live long and prosper”
-Spock, Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan
For close to 20 years, Spock was one of the most beloved characters in TV science fiction. And then came the movie that killed him. Oh sure, Trek was always full of death, but never for anyone really important. Yeah, Scotty’s nephew had died earlier in the film, but he was just another redshirt with a few more lines ultimately, wasn’t he? Spock was another matter. For the first time, the danger the main characters were so frequently in finally took a significant victim. At least Spock got to say what he wanted to say at the end to his best friend. And he finished it with his signature farewell and salute, bringing geeks the world over to tears (and in some cases a fair amount of anger too). Another milestone in SF at the movies.

2. “It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.”
-HAL 9000, 2001 – A Space Odyssey
No one expected that an AI capable of operating an interplanetary spacecraft, conducting a years-long scientific mission, and murdering its crew would come to its end grinding out an antiquated little ditty more or less like an alzheimers patient focussing on some old, trivial incident after the bulk of their memory has been taken away. In this, it was another example of how, despite his circuits an cold, unblinking red eye, HAL was as human as the other crew members aboard the Discovery.

1. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All these moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die.”
-Roy Batty, Blade Runner
Despite a rampage of remorseless killings motivated seemingly more by frustration and vengeance than a real desire to find a way to live longer, the leader of the replicants is, at heart, a poet and meets his end not with violence but with touching metaphors. An imminent death for Roy is unavoidable, but these words: “Time to die” give the viewer a sense that death comes now not merely because of inevitability, but more because Roy has decided it will come by finally accepting it. The sentence borders on being an order issued to death. It’s paradoxically as though he’s taking control of something he’s always been afraid of because he never had any control over it.  This is a beautifully crafted scene in one of the best SF movies of all time.

ON TV:

5. “You make your choices and you live with them. In the end, you are those choices.”
-Kendra Shaw, Battlestar Galactica: Razor
Hard words about life from a woman who’s lived through some of the worst of it. These may not be Shaw’s last words in life, but they are the last that we hear from her charcter and they are a powerful close to this BSG movie about the consequences of choosing to be tough rather than human, and they mark an end to a particularly savage and sad chapter in the Colonial exodus. BSG has some of the best writing on television, regardless of genre, and a lot of that skill was brought to bear in making this TV movie.

4. “It’s the end… but the moment has been prepared for.”
-the Fourth Doctor, Doctor Who – season/series 18 – “Logopolis”
harrysaxon suggested this one, noting Tom Baker’s end is one of the most famous among fans of The Doctor and thus in SF. Fitting to put the Fourth Doctor’s demise in the number 4 slot on this list.

3. “”Rose, before I go, I just wanna tell you: you were fantastic, absolutely fantastic. And you know what? So was I!”
-the Ninth Doctor, Doctor Who (new series) – series 1 – “The Parting of Ways”
A great suggestion from harrysaxon who says, “I love [these words] because they’re a meta-commentary on Piper and Eccleston’s performances, and the performance of the revived series after the lofty expectations heaped upon it, and it definitively answered them.”

2. “You do not understand. But you will.”
-Ambassador Kosh, Babylon 5 – season 3 – “Interludes and Examinations”
The last words the Vorlon speaks to Sheridan before leaving to order his people to finally join the fight and attack the Shadow forces that have been rampaging through the Alliance are also the last words he speaks in person before being killed in a fight with a couple of Shadows that break into his quarters. They are the epitome of Kosh – always speaking with the simplicity of Zen koans that hold layers and layers of meaning in their murky depths, that meaning frequently missed by members of the younger races. And there’s regret in his voice – but it’s not whining because he knows he’ll die for his decision, it’s sadness for the fact that the human captain just doesn’t get that he’ll be losing out as much as Kosh will, if a little farther down the road. Now, some may argue that these are, in fact, not Kosh’s last words, that his final spiel came during Sheridan’s dream while Kosh was being killed. But here we’re getting mired in the complexity of Vorlon telepathic communication and that species’ biology, because we have to remember that the can break pieces of themselves off to hide in the back of another creature’s mind. Bearing that in mind (pun intended), it would make more sense to argue that his last words were “Jump! Jump now!” prior to Sheridan’s fall at Zha’ha’dum. But really, I think the last words Kosh gave in person are sufficient. They certainly best sum up the Vorlon as we knew him, and with their cryptic meaning are unforgettable.

1. “Gazpacho soup.
-3rd Technician Arnold J. Rimmer, Red Dwarf – series 1 – “Me2”
Both harrysaxon and I agreed this one had to be on the list, and since it’s unanimous, and because it’s so great, it ranks number one. What makes this line so great? It’s the height of the ridiculousness of Rimmer’s character, and by extension the show. Rimmer is such a neurotic loser that he quite literally meets his doom obsessing over an incident where he looked like an idiot (as usual) when dining at the Captain’s table and insisting that the gazpacho soup was cold and needed heating, not realizing that’s the way it’s supposed to be served. Worse yet, he can’t even escape embarassment in death – revived as a hologram, his secret gets out and his shipmates (Lister, the lone survivor of the ship’s disaster; and Cat, a humanoid descended from Lister’s pet cat) are merciless in giving him the gears. These famous last words are wickedly funny and a brilliant illustration of the smallness of some people.

IN BOOKS AND SHORT STORIES:

5. “Look,”
-Chuck, “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke
Not much in the way of last words, I’ll grant you, but that single word is part of an unforgettable scene at the close of this unforgettable short story. What else would a human being really be able to do if the universe began to shut down in front of his eyes? 

4. “LET THERE BE LIGHT!”
-AC, “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov
Long after the heat death of the universe, nothing is left except an entity known as AC (a descendant of AI’s invented by mankind) who is hanging on to conciousness for one reason: to figure out a way to prevent the end of the universe. This last statement, quoting the Bible, then proceed to give existence a reboot. An interesting double circle where an entity created by science invokes one of myth, and uses as his last words at the end of everything the fabled first words to restart the process (and thus, having fulfilled his mission, probably giving up his own conciousness at last).

3. “I can’t die yet. I haven’t seen The Jolson Story.”
-Robert “Jetboy” Tomlin, “Thirty Minutes Over Broadway” by Howard Waldrop – Wildcards – volume 1 – edited by George R.R. Martin
This is a line that’s always stuck out in my memory. Not the most profound pair of sentences in English language literature, but fitting ones. It’s a story about a forgotten hero who rises from obscurity (and days filled with watching movies) to attempt to save the world once again – and fails. It is a world that will suddenly be afflicted by the madness of an alien virus that kills most of the people it infects, horrendously disfigures the bulk of the survivors, and gives a precious few super powers. But before that, when the Wildcard virus was locked in a bomb in the hands of some bad guys in a blimp high over New York, there was Jetboy, a normal man (despite his larger than life adventures in years gone by) with real limitations who rose to the challenge and tried to save the day. While grappling with an enemy, most heroes would have been satisfied with grunts, or fired off an insult, or might have tried to say something noble and cool. Not Jetboy. Amidst the struggle, he throws down a shocking piece of normality – there’s a new flick in town and death would interfere with his movie plans. How wonderfully banal! This is an utter lack of pretension that just isn’t seen in bigtime heroes. In an unreal situation, Jetboy is made more real by the choice of words that ultimately prove to be his last.

2. “But if that’s Olham, then I must be…”
-“Olham”, “Imposter” by Philip K. Dick
 A nice nomination from harrysaxon. One of his favourites and an explosive way to end a story.

1. “Fly, you fools!”
-Gandalf the Grey, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
This one got the nod from both of us, not surprisingly, and so garnered the number one spot. The wizard’s last words before he falls from the wreckage of the bridge of Khazad’dum with the balrog cap one of the most intense chases in English literature. They are extremely telling of Gandalf’s personality: facing his own end, the wizard’s concern is for the safety of his friends and the success of the mission to destroy the ring. And there’s no mucking about with grand speeches either, with Gandalf it’s down to business: basically, don’t stand around like idiots, get your asses outta here or you’ll die! And while Gandalf comes back later in the story, it is as Gandalf the White, who is somewhat different than his previous incarnation. He may get sent back by Illuvatar to finish the job, but something of Gandalf does die when he collapses after finally beating the balrog. Even if LOTR had not been made into a movie that made this scene frighteningly real, Gandalf’s last words would still be unforgettable because of his impact as a character in one of the greatest stories in English literature.

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The SF dream cubicle

December 8, 2008

The other day a coworker put me on to a site that was highlighting some really cool office cubicles earlier this year – examples of workers who have gone impressively over the top in personalizing their personal work spaces.

Both of us being SF fans, we started to muse about what our ideal SF-inspired cubicle would look like – if we could ever get away with it in our office, that is, which we couldn’t.

He’s a Trek fan, specifically a follower of a certain group of sometime allies, sometime enemies of the Federation, so he was thinking big: the bridge of a Klingon battlecruiser. Now that’s ambition for the office! Mind you, since it is a cubicle, wouldn’t the interior of a Borg cube be more appropriate?

Personally, I’m thinking that while grand visions for cubicle decore might be nice, you pretty much have to have something appropriate for the limited amount of space you’re working with, otherwise it just wouldn’t pull together. Given an unlimited geeky decorating budget (and permission from the boss, of course) I think I’d either go for the interior of a space pod from “2001”, Wash’s control consol from the bridge of Serenity on “Firefly”, or maybe go red neon crazy and cook-up the interior of a video tank from “Tron”.

So how about you, fellow cubicle dwellers? How would you touch-up your workspace with SF flare if your boss allowed it?

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The top 10 SF movie countdowns

December 3, 2008

The season for countdowns has officially begun. The countdown of the number of shopping days left until the holidays, the countdown to Christmas itself (“How many more sleeps till Santa comes?”), the countdown until the Boxing Day/Week sales orgy, the countdown until midnight on New Year’s Eve, and, most importantly, the countdown of how many more minutes or hours you have to spend with annoying relatives and in-laws at family gatherings. Wow, do we ever have our eyes on the clock in December! And so, in the spirit of the season, we thought we’d count down the top 10 SF movies that included (or in some cases centred around) countdowns. Here goes:

10. Deep Impact
A nice near-future killer asteroid movie worthy not only for its special effects, but because it also has a fairly good story to it as we follow the collection of characters. Periodically, the film let’s us know how many more days or hours until the cosmic hammerblow comes down, but the countdown itself doesn’t really add to the tension – it’s just kind of there every now and again. The plot functions well enough on its own that the numbers aren’t crucial. We won’t mention the other killer space rock movie that came out around the same time and starred Willis and Affleck because we don’t want to ruin your holiday by dwelling on that suck fest too much.

9. Last Night
A much smaller, more quiet end-of the world movie, starring Sandra Oh and Don McKellar (with a supporting role by Callum Keith Rennie – BSG’s Leoben). The countdown in this film, given by way of occasional radio updates and the odd appearance of an older woman running full-tilt through the streets gleefully in the role of harbinger, announcing how many hours or minutes are left, has a strong and relentless presence as the end of the world (the cause of which we’re never told, although for some reason darkness never seems to fall) approaches. And yet, this countdown, for all of its weight, doesn’t crush a very touching, personal story of a man facing the world’s end (even though his own personal world came crashing down years ago when his wife died) by helping a stranded woman try to get to her husband. Along the way we meet several other people trying to cope with impending doom in a variety of ways, some strange, many funny, and all touching.

8. Predator
It wasn’t enough that an insterstellar hunter came to the steamy jungles of South (or was it Central) America to bust up Ahnuld’s homoerotic fantasy – er, assasination mission – er, rescue mission (yeah, that’s it, yeah) by slaughtering his friends and then proceeding to kick our hero’s ass. No, the Predator just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Just when Dutch finally thinks he’s got the beast beat, the sucker activates some device that you didn’t need to be able to read Predator-ese to know was a suicide/evidence-destroying time bomb. A final “fuck you”, if you will. Despite his wounds, weariness and recent ass-kicking, Dutch manages to flee and escape being blown up real good. Although, given the mushroom cloud that rises from the tree canopy, one has to wonder if he survived the blast, only to be irradiated into an oncologist’s office.

7. Aliens
Here’s another “it’s always something” example. Bad enough that the Aliens have killed off almost all of the Colonial Marines, but the bugs also swiped a little girl, and the reactor attached to the atmosphere processing plant is about to blow, but Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley, who still hasn’t gotten over the trauma of the first movie in the series, has to deal with all the ensuing shit. During the rescue of Newt, Ripley’s constantly harassed not just by Aliens, but by the reactor’s computer notifying her of how long she’s got until the explosion. And just when time’s almost run out, and the Alien queen is right on their tail, Ripley and Newt get to the landing gantry and find that the android, Bishop, and their ship are gone. Great use of a countdown, but it’s hard to put this one higher on the list because a countdown already played such a crucial role in the first movie.

6. 2010
Now, some of you out there are probably screaming bloody blue murder that we’re ranking “The Year We Make Contact” above the second slaughterfest installment in the Alien series, but there’s a couple of good reasons behind this decision. First, 2010 is a well-done intellectual film with, for its day, good SFX. Secondly, and most importantly for the purposes of this list, it has not one, but two crucial countdown scenes. The first is the Jovian aerobraking countdown where Heywood Floyd, useless as tits on a bull as far as ship operations go, is confined to his cabin, getting his teeth rattled nearly out of his wrinkly skull while a female Soviet crew member who also is of little use during the manouver clings to him like a frightened cat. Kudos to harrysaxon for remembering and suggesting this scene, as I’d forgotten it. During most of the ordeal, Floyd’s eyes (when they’re not closed) are usually on the clock, helping to give the audience the very real sense that anyone gets on an uncomfortable ride wishing it would be over. The second countdown (the one I remembered) is the one leading up to the Discovery/Leonov escape launch. Not only is timing crucial, but it all depends on HAL, and no-one knows if the now-reformed, formerly homicidal AI is truly dependable when the mission goes out the window and his own existence is threatened. It’s HAL who ticks off the clock for us, interjecting with his concerns and making you squirm throughout the whole process. Very well done indeed.

5. Star Trek III – The Search for Spock
The Enterprise should have been able to blow the Klingon bird of prey out of the sky without much effort. Should have been, but having been stolen, Kirk and his buddies didn’t have a crew to run it, and in turn ran into trouble when the automation system was fried. The solution to a Klingon boarding party? Blow the sucker up. A great scene when the curious Klingons step onto the computer was “the only thing speaking” – counting down the seconds to autodestruct. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t so great being able to see far enough down Christopher Lloyd’s throat to check whether he had tonsils or not, but still, what a great comeuppance for the swaggering Klingons. Also a powerful one for anyone who was even remotely fond of the series and had to watch Enterprise plummet out of the sky.

4. Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope
The countdown in the Rebel command centre for how many minutes until the Death Star clears Yavin was a pretty minor part of a huge chapter in the movie. None-the-less, it added an important, extra dash of tension when the scene cut away from the fighter runs in the trench. Because the final attack and the looming threat of the Death Star being in a firing position – endgame for both sides – was such an important part of the movie, and thus SF cinematic history, and because the countdown played a valuable role in it, Star Wars makes it to the Top 5.

3. Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan
The countdown plays a big role at the end of, arguably, the best of the Trek films, where a Melville-spitting Khan activates the Genesis device in a last-ditch effort to take Kirk and the Enterprise with him to hell. There’s less than 5 minutes to get away, the bomb can’t be stopped, and Enterprise is too crippled to go to warp. Every time Kirk checks the time and distance as his ship limps away, it’s a shot so hard it may as well be from a photon torpedo – not enough distance, too little time left. Luckily, Spock’s got a plan. This is a movie where technical details played a big role – from the exteriour shots of the ships hammering each other, to all the little intricacies on the bridge (that great, panicked pan back and forth across the con as Khan tries desperately to figure out why his shields are dropping) and in the engine room. That includes the runnning clock, first on the Genesis device aboard Reliant, then on the Enterprise bridge, then the time-check delivered in Sulu’s hopeless drone. The closer, with an explosion that creates a planet and with Spock’s sacrifice, is truly huge. Because the countdown is so very much at the front of the tension here, TWOK outranks Star Wars on this list.

2. Alien
Once the action started, I was literally on the edge of my seat the first time I saw this film. At the end, when the Alien has killed everyone aboard the Nostromo except for Ripley and Jones, Weaver’s character makes a final effort at escape by activating the autodestruct. Problem is, not only is the clock running, but she’s got to avoid running into the Alien. And the whole time Mother the computer just won’t shut up about how little time is left. Things get really hairy when Ripley’s exit is blocked by the monster and she tries to stop the autodestruct – with just seconds before the point of no return – and it won’t work. Mother just keeps counting down to the fireworks, forcing Ripley to go back out and try to deke around the now strangely-absent Alien and launch the escape pod. That moment where the attempt to abort the countdown fails hits the audience almost as hard as it does Ripley – the film’s wound you up so much by that point. Definitely, this is one of the best all-time countdowns.

1. Escape from New York
Okay, the first installment in the adventurs of Snake Plissken doesn’t have the explosive finish of Alien, but the countdown is central to the plot of this movie – not just the last few scenes, the whole bloody film. Within minutes of the beginning, Kurt Russel’s character is injected with small explosives that will, if he fails to rescue the president and his top secret cassette on time, cause him to have some fatal issues with internal bleeding. From there on in, Snake is constantly watching the clock to see how much time he’s got left. Every move is chosen to get its results as quickly and effectively as possible so that he doesn’t become another victim of New York penitentiary. And it works. Rather than get boring, this plot device actually matters to the audience, who wants to know if Snake’s gonna make it. And those last few seconds when he’s heading for the technician with the means to deactivate the bombs are real sphincter-clenchers. Escape from New York is without a doubt the best of the films with countdowns.

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Geeky addictions: My final thoughts…

December 3, 2008

I think we’ve pushed this little debate about as far as it can go; I have only a few quick observations.

First, I think the whole “addiction” schism between us is largely an issue of semantics. There’s a casual use for the word – as in “right now, I’m totally addicted to my iPhone/Deadwood/Gears of War 2/Dan Simmons/geocaching/etc.”. It’s a casual use which doesn’t really mean addiction, in the dictionary sense of the word, which indicates some level of compulsion. I do believe that everything you’ve talked about is well covered under the casual use of the term; as I mentioned, in the current high-tension political debate around a psychological “illness” termed “video game addiction”, it makes it a loaded term, which I try to avoid in semi-formal online writing.

It is not a sensitive matter to me personally, except in the greater political debate around avid gamers these days; as I mentioned, I had an addiction problem with EverQuest (and I think the issue of MMO addiction is a much more real one, as they are engineered as Skinner boxes for just that purpose) for a period of about 9 months, where compulsive behaviour was definitely part of it. While I am an avid console gamer today, it is just one of several diversions which I pursue in my leisure time – and not even my favourite, which is and always has been the printed word – but there is no compulsive aspect like there was in my EQ days. Coming back to my original post, the current video game season is like the summer blockbuster season for action movie fans; it just takes up more of their leisure time than it does in the winter because there’s so much more to choose from.

Secondly, we really shouldn’t be debating the issue of gaming and interest in SF in the same geek stripe. As I’ve endeavoured to express here and elsewhere, gaming is entering the mainstream as a platform for entertainment; SF is and always will be a collection of genres within many entertainment platforms that will come and go in popularity. What I see coming now and in the future is that gaming, which was formerly a part of the geek cultures we both love (and wear proudly, whether at work or in a SF bookstore), is no longer a part of geek culture, but is taking its place alongside TV, movies, and books as a form of popular entertainment. Thus the jock of the future will play the latest Madden game but disdain Japanese role-playing-games; the hard-scifi Mass Effect fans will disapprove of the supernatural elements of Dead Space; but all will be playing these genres without any thought to the fact that they are all gamers, any more than the guy who doesn’t like a SF show like BSG denigrates the entire medium of television.