Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

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“Shellfishly indulgent.”

This is largely included purely for completeness: if this had been a stand-alone film, it likely wouldn’t have qualified, not reaching the mandatory minimum quota of action heroineness. For in this sequel, Major Kusanagi (Tanaka) has abandoned even her artificial physical form, for life entirely inside the Internet. Her presence in this is therefore more spiritual, with Batou (Yamadera) referring to her as his “guardian angel”, and her impact is more felt than seen – particularly in its ramification for Batou, whose degree of cybernetic enhancement is not much lower than hers. She only returns to a tangible persona in the final scene, where Batou has to take on a near-endless stream of combat-reprogrammed sex robots. My, that’s a phrase I never thought I’d be writing…

So this is much more Batou’s story, as he and the much-less enhanced Togusa (Ōki) investigate Section 9’s latest case. In it, the “gynoid” sex robots created by tech company LOCUS SOLUS, are involved in a series of their owners’ deaths, which have been covered up and settled quietly, out of court. Section 9 are brought in, over concerns the incidents are a prelude to a cyber-attack by terrorists. Instead, they discover human “ghosts” are being implanted into the gynoids, to make them more realistic. It eventually turns out LOCUS SOLUS, from their floating headquarters (conveniently in international water) have been kidnapping young girls, in order to repeatedly copy the victim’s personality into their robots – a process which eventually drives the source insane.

It’s quite a trip for Batou and Togusa to get there, however. They have to handle a very pissed-off Yakuza gang, whose boss was one of the gynoid victims – they don’t respond well to Batou’s style of investigation, shall we say. Then there’s Kim, an ex-military hacker who can hack the pair’s cyber-brain, and twist the reality they experience into a pretzel. This is where the mix of animation styles is perhaps at its best: Oshii opts neither for pure CGI nor traditional hand-drawn, instead combining them in a way that uses the strengths of each to good effect.

But it probably is too damn cerebral for its own good. Per Wikipedia, “quotations in the film come from Buddha, Confucius, Descartes, the Old Testament, Meiji-era critic Saitō Ryokuu, Richard Dawkins, Max Weber, Jacob Grimm, Plato, John Milton, 14th century playwright Zeami Motokiyo, the Tridentine Mass, and Julien Offray de La Mettrie, French Enlightenment philosopher and author of Man a Machine.” This is a common problem for Oshii: see Avalon or Garm Wars, for other examples of his work which also struggle to hold up under the philosophical weight he throws onto genre fare.

Look, I’m not averse to intellectual concepts in film. But when it comes to action film, they need to be a garnish rather than the main ingredient – something to tickle the higher parts of the brain, while the lizard areas enjoy the spectacle and gratuitous violence. While those latter aspects are present, it comes with indigestible lumps of philosophy, that I would rather had been present in lesser quantity, if not left out of the dish entirely.

Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Star: Akio Ōtsuka, Kōichi Yamadera, Tamio Ōki, Atsuko Tanaka

Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex

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“We need to go deeper…”

Despite the critical and commercial success of the original film, it took a while for anything further to emerge from the GitS universe. Over the seven years after the movie, the only adapted media to be released was a 1997 video-game. This hiatus came to an end in October 2002 when Stand Alone Complex took the air on Japanese satellite station  SKY PerfecTV!. This was a 26-part series, each episode lasting 25 minutes, and was followed in 2004 by S.A.C. 2nd GIG, which had the same format. In turn, the first season was adapted into both a feature-length version, The Laughing Man, and two manga volumes, while the second was also edited down into a feature-length edition, Individual Eleven.

The main advantage the TV series offers over the movie should be apparent: it has much greater scope at which to explore the world of cyberbrain networks, information warfare, and their resulting impact on society and humanity. This is particularly apparent early on in the first series. There does eventually develop an ongoing story arc, focusing on the search for an elite hacker (the “Laughing Man”, who takes inspiration from a J.D. Salinger short story) who is trying to expose a conspiracy between the government and cyber-medical companies. But the series also has episodes that don’t advance this at all, exploring other aspects of life in the technologically advanced society which is 2030’s Japan.

It can also be pretty damn cerebral at times. Even the titlular concept, the “Stand Alone Complex”, is not easy for the viewer to wrap their head around. It’s a little bit like the notion of copycat incidents – except, in the case of the Stand Alone Complex, the original didn’t take place, or at least not in the way perceived by those who copy it. It’s probably easiest to provide an example: “Slender Man”. This was a supposed supernatural creature, belief in which reportedly caused two 12-year-old girls to stab another, a ritual designed to impress Slender Man. But the urban legend in question was actually a piece of fiction, created wholesale by a Internet forum user. This idea informs both seasons, with reality and perceived reality both triggering subsequent actions. It’s sometimes way above my head, that’s for sure.

Another result of the extra room is an approach which occasionally becomes meandering to the point of irritation. On the other hand, you can only admire a show which is confident enough in its own abilities, to have an episode which takes place, almost in its entirety, in an Internet chat room. Another ongoing thread is the growing self-awareness of the Tachikomas, independent AI tanks employed by Section 9. These feature in little vignettes at the end of every episode in the first season. To be honest, I initially found their squeaky little voices fairly irritating and fast-forwarded as soon as the final credits rolled. However, they did redeem themselves with a surprising bit of altruism at the end of the series, and were considerably more tolerable in the second season.

Compared to the movie, the animation is a little less fluid – as you’d expect, given the constraints of cost and time. The budget was reportedly $300,000 per episode, compared to $10 million for the film: so the entire first season, running nine hours or so (excluding credits), still cost less than the 80-minute movie, even allowing for seven years of inflation. The style is also a little different, with the character designs more closely resembling the original manga. This is perhaps most apparent in the look of Major Kusanagi. For the TV version seems quite enthusiastic in the area of fan service, with some of her costumes looking as if she’d just rolled out of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, rather than those typically worn by a public servant – see below for an example!

While the feature focused directly on the Major and her quest for identity, the series also uses its greater freedom to become more of an ensemble piece. The Major is clearly still the leader and boss, with skills that surpass everyone else – they defer to her, and it’s entirely understandable. But over the course of these 52 episodes, the spotlight turns at one point onto just about everyone else, from her hulking second-in-command, former Army Ranger Batou, through to Togusa, the member of Section 9 who has undergone the least amount of cybernetic enhancement. This allows it to explore their history. For example, the (somewhat notorious, due to its graphic violence) “Jungle Cruise” episode, had Batou hunting down an ex-military colleague who has become a serial killer.

The second season, while still having some individual episodes, has an interesting main thread which has become particularly relevant in the light of subsequent geo-political events. A refugee crisis has broken out, leading to a large influx of displaced people to Japan, causing tension between them and the locals. A charismatic refugee leader, Kuze, has sprung up, leading a movement demanding autonomy for the island where they are being housed. A right-wing group within the government, led by creepy intelligence officer Goda, seeks to exploit the tension by “false flagging” a nuclear incident as a refugee terrorist act, allowing the group to stage effectively a military coup. While originally inspired by the Japanese reaction to 9/11, it’s easy to see parallels to the current world situation here.

Partly due to this, I’m curious to see how much of the series ends up present in the live-action film. The very first episode includes a hostage situation involving android geisha, which is a part of the trailers we’ve seen. As mentioned, each series was edited down into a feature-length compilation, so could be the basis for the 2017 story – though as I haven’t bothered with those, I can’t comment on how coherent the results ended up. But other aspects of the trailers appear to come from the original movie, so I suspect we’ll be looking at a combination, drawing from multiple elements of the GitS universe. It’ll probably be based more on “what looks cool?” rather than narrative sense!

Dir: Kenji Kamiyama
Star (voice): Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Richard Epcar, Crispin Freeman, William Frederick Knight

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – Solid State Society
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“Solid State Survivors.”

A rather clunky title for an OAV (original animation video), which came out in September 2006, about 18 months after the end of season two. It’s also two years after the events depicted, with Major Kusanagi (Tanaka) having quit her job as Section 9, and largely dropped off the grid. Batou (Ōtsuka) has taken over her position as S9’s top field operative, with Togusa (Yamadera) the. After a series of suicides exposes a plot for a bioterror attack, the group is on the hunt for a hacker called the Puppeteer, apparently behind it. But the investigation finds the apparent attack was almost a diversion, and uncovers a massive child abduction ring that may be responsible for as many as 20,000 kidnappings.

Even by the standards of a series which has always waxed philosophical, this has some pretty deep constructs. For example, the Puppeteer is described by the Major as a “rhizome”. Wikipedia tells me this is a concept developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972–1980) project. It is what Deleuze calls an “image of thought,” based on the botanical rhizome, that apprehends multiplicities. Well, glad we’ve cleared that up, then. Fortunately, you don’t really need to understand any of this: basically just think of of it as an example of a computer network becoming self-aware, and acting on its own behalf. Everything beyond that, feels a bit like extracts from a paper by a college student who wants you to know how deep they are.

It’s somewhat better when not vanishing up its own philosophical backside. Probably the best sequence has Togusa becoming the victim of a brain-hack and compelled to make a terrible choice: hand his own daughter over to the Puppeteer, to become one of the abductees (with his memory then wiped) or kill himself. It’s a chilling sequence, and also marks the return of the Major to work with Section 9. She has been carrying out her own investigation, free from the restrictions inevitably resulting out of her official role. It turns out to be connected to the aging of Japanese society – a major problem now, and likely to be worse by the late 2030’s when this is set.

It looks pretty slick, with a budget definitely on the high-end for video animation, and there’s no need to have seen the TV series, for this to make sense. But it’s largely forgettable stuff, and the significant absence of the Major, particularly in the first half, weakens proceedings considerably, robbing it of the universe’s most memorable character.

Dir: Kenji Kamiyama
Star (voice): Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Koichi Yamadera, Osamu Saka

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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“The ghostess with the mostest.”

ghostintheshell1985Renowned for its influence on just about every subsequent cyberpunk entity, from The Matrix to Westworld, this also remains one of the classic anime movies, more than two decades after its release. The main problem though, is the translation of a densely-packed and heavily notated manga series by Masamune Shirow, into an 82-minute action feature. You’re left with something forced to cram the philosophical aspects into a couple of indigestible lumps – an approach certainly also adopted by the Wachowski Brothers.

It’s set in a future Japan where cyborg enhancements have become the norm, to the point where some people are beginning to question what’s left of their own humanity (the “ghosts” in the hardened artificial “shells”). Among them is Major Motoko Kusanagi (Tanaka), an assault-team leader in Section 9, a federal public security agency. They are attempting to track down the Puppet Master, a notorious hacker, who uses an automated facility to create an entirely artificial body. Section 9 discover that the truth about the Puppet Master’s origins is closer than is comfortable, stemming from the actions of another government department and “Project 2501”. But what, if anything, does this say about the Puppet Master’s goals?

It’s a rather uneven mix of high-paced action sequences and more leisurely scenes. Each work well on their own (helped immeasurably by Kenji Kawai’s score), yet fall short of combining into a thoroughly cohesive whole. The Major might be rather over-fond of waxing philosophical, as shown in the following monologue, during a down-time conversation with her less-enhanced colleague, Batou (Ōtsuka), which feels more like the sort of thing I heard out of my fellow students – typically, the damn philosophy ones – at university, late on Saturday nights after the bar had closed.

Just as there are many parts needed to make a human a human, there’s a remarkable number of things needed to make an individual what they are. A face to distinguish yourself from others. A voice you aren’t aware of yourself. The hand you see when you awaken. The memories of childhood, the feelings for the future. That’s not all. There’s the expanse of the data net my cyberbrain can access. All of that goes into making me what I am. Giving rise to a consciousness that I call ‘me’. And simultaneously confining “me” within set limits.

While certainly a good summary of the movie’s main theme, it’s the kind of thing best explored in a longer, more leisurely format such as the TV series which were to follow. Here, this kind of rumination seems a bit forced. More effective than the chat is the action. Kusanagi’s talents and ability to take damage make for some glorious set pieces, such as her fight with one of the Puppet Master’s host bodies, and a battle against a tank, possessing vastly superior fire-power. The look of the film is just glorious as well, combing traditional cel animation and computer graphics to an effect rarely, if ever, matched. There was an “enhanced” version which came out in 2008, with upgraded CGI; yet after two minutes, I switched back to the original, where the combination feels more seamless. It’s certainly preferable to much modern anime – I’d rather have something try too hard to be smart, as here, than not try hard enough.

Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Star (voice): Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ōtsuka, Iemasa Kayumi, Kōichi Yamadera

Cyborg X

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“James Cameron’s lawyer, on line one…”

cyborgxMaybe the makers of this should just have been honest, and called it Terminaliens. For the amount of wholesale theft that has gone on here is really quite staggering. It takes place in the nearish future after a weapons research program goes haywire, and the cyborg results start attacking humans all over the globe. It’s up to a band of freedom fighters to attack the central computer complex and disable the system before humanity is entirely wiped out. Through in an adorable moppet young girl, who falls under the protection of the heroine, along with some crawling through air-ducts, and you’ve got a homage to James Cameron – back when he was good, rather making three-hour epics about doomed icebergs.

The main thread has heroine Lieutenant Spears (Mauro) rescuing Jack Kilmore (Myers), an X-Corp executive who holds the key to infiltrating his company’s former HQ. You may have to resist the urge to yell “He’s a cyborg!” at your television set, but that’s actually just Myers’s style of acting. There’s also Col. Shaw (Johnson), who smokes cigars and yells a lot, while the nerdy Wizkowski (Stormoen), has a name which seems curiously close to being another Aliens rip-off… Finally there’s even a tough Hispanic chick, Lopez, who – in full keeping with the Aliens approach – is played by the thoroughly non-Hispanic Angie Papanikolas.

One upgrade on Aliens is that Danny Trejo shows up for a bit, as another one of the soldiers, which is nice. We love us some Danny Trejo. He would likely have made Aliens  Otherwise, the rampant plagiarism is all a bit of a shame, since some of the other aspects aren’t bad. The CGI drones which are Skynet’s X-Corp’s surveillance system are nothing to write home about, but the more practical effects are solid, with some surprisingly gory moments. One woman gets the front of her head blown off, while later, a man is cut in half, and left to crawl along the ground, his intestines trailing behind him. Meanwhile, Spears manages to kick ass while looking decent doing it, even when yanking a Very Large Bazooka out of nowhere. Fortunately, supplies of beauty products apparently have not been interrupted by this apocalypse.

This wouldn’t be out of place on the SyFy channel, and stands up decently enough against others of its ilk. If you haven’t seen the Terminator series or Aliens, you would probably enjoy this a good deal more – though if so, that does beg the question, why are you watching the SyFy channel? But I just wish the makers had put more effort into creating a plot that was not so tired and over-familiar. If the resources devoted to this had been applied to an original story-line, it could have been a small gem, rather than feeling like a lame rip-off of genre classics.

Dir: Kevin King
Star: Eve Mauro, Rocky Myers, Adam Johnson, Jake Stormoen

The Darkest Dawn

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“Illegal aliens”

darkestdawnThis is apparently a sequel to a previous movie about an alien invasion of Earth (and, specifically, the United Kingdom) from the same director, Hungerford. While I haven’t seen it, this likely didn’t impact things too much here; I sense it’s perhaps closer to a separate story, unfolding in the same universe, than a true sequel. It’s the story of teenage sisters Chloe (Leadley) and Sam (Wallis), with the former getting a video camera for her birthday – just in time for said invasion to kick off, with their family being separated in the ensuing chaos. Toting her camera, Chloe and her sibling take shelter, then scurry through the blasted landscape, facing the threat not just of the extra-terrestrials, but renegade bands of survivors. For it also turns out Chloe, specifically her blood, is a key to the resistance. What are the odds?

There’s a strong sense of Cloverfield here, with the alien threat glimpsed more in passing than directly. The major difference is probably the human element, since the sisters are in peril from other people, as much if not more than from the invaders. Of course, the whole “found footage” thing has been utterly done to death since Blair Witch – and I think even that was vastly over-rated. Here, it adds precious little to proceedings, and there’s not much which could have been done equally as well (or, arguably, better), with an external viewpoint. It has all the usual issues of the genre; most obviously, why the lead character keeps filming, when on multiple occasions common sense and survival instinct would dictate dumping the camera and legging it. But then, a more conventional approach probably would have led to the production costing a great deal more than £40,000 (approx. 1/500th that of Cloverfield).

The two leads are, I believe, YouTube stars rather than professional actresses, and that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. They do have a natural and unaffected quality, which helps their characters avoid falling into the irritating teenager trap. But they don’t have much more, and any time there is actual acting required – rather than reacting – then they come up short. While the script does give Chloe a decent arc, going from a typically self-obsessed teenage girl into a focused and determined young woman, the climax feels somewhat undercooked. It does not offer the viewer much in the way of resolution, I suspect because writer-director Casson perhaps wants to return to the same milieu in future.

While I wouldn’t be averse to that, I hope Casson (dear God, I just realized he’s only 22 and has already made and had released two cinematic features) stretches his talents into more than the found footage genre, since too often this is merely a crutch for low-budget film-makers, used to excuse away shaky camerawork and improvised dialogue. There’s some evidence of talent visible here, on both sides of the camera – providing you can get past the likely motion sickness this may cause.

Dir: Drew Casson
Star: Bethan Mary Leadley, Cherry Wallis, Stuart Ashen, Drew Casson

Kill La Kill

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“Not sure if serious…”

killlakillAfter I watched the first episode of this show, I was sure it was a delicious parody of anime shows, particular the “super-powered high-school” genre. It seemed to be taking the concepts of shows such as Sailor Moon, say, and ramping everything up to 11. The violence, in particular, is somewhere beyond Dragon Ball Z in terms of excess, except with copious additional amounts of arterial spray – though people survive far beyond the point at which any normal person would be a desiccated husk. I mean, just look at that heroine’s outfit on the right. They cannot be serious, can they? But the longer this went on… the less sure I was whether it was a parody. If it is, it’s an impressively straight-faced one.

The setting is Honnouji Academy, a Tokyo high school ruled over by Satsuki Kiryuin (Yuzuki), who runs the place as a neo-fascist regime, enforcing her will through selected pupils. Her chosen ones are enhanced by “Goku uniforms” of various levels, made from a strange substance called life fibers, which give the wearer superhuman abilities. But into this comes Ryuko Matoi (Koshimizu), a transfer student with an agenda all her own – as well as her own enhanced uniform, a sentient outfit called Senketsu (Seki), and half of a pair of giant scissors, which she starts using to take out Satsuki’s minions. For Ryuko is seeking the killer of her father, the scientist who developed Senketsu, and seems like Satsuki played a significant role in that murder.

There’s more. A lot more. Suffice it to say that just about no-one here is quite what they seem, right down to the life fibers, and by the time you reach the final episode, loyalties and alliances have gone to a completely different landscape. For something which feels like it should be shallow, tongue in cheek and certainly has copious amounts of fan service (albeit being fairly even-handed in its OTT depiction of both sexes), there’s clearly considerable effort gone into the plotting. But, let’s be honest, the main focus here is on the fights, as Ryuko first makes her way up the chain of command toward her nemesis, and then discovers the truth about what’s going on and has to recalibrate her sights. There’s hardly one of the 24 x 25-minute episodes which does not consist of at least one-third major, major animated mayhem, with Ryoko beating the tar out of one or more enemies, and taking as much damage as she receives.

As such, it does get somewhat repetitive – if you’ve seen Ryuko’s transformation sequence once, you’ve seen it several dozen times – and there isn’t much sense of escalation to the action. But it is brashly hyper-energetic, relentlessly female-driven, largely romance free and perfect for viewing in small, highly-caffeinated doses. If only I could figure out whether or not it was intended to be one big in-joke or not, I know whether or not to feel guilty about enjoying it.

Dir: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Star: Ami Koshimizu, Ryoka Yuzuki, Aya Suzaki, Toshihiko Seki

Black Amazon of Mars, by Leigh Brackett

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Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

Normally, I like to start a series at the beginning. But I chose to read this second novella of Brackett’s Eric John Stark series, as my long-awaited first introduction to her work, because Amazon offered me the chance to read it for free on my Kindle app. (And yes, I’ll definitely be buying a paper copy!) That means there are unanswered questions here about Stark’s origins and background, and about the Martian world –what kind of “beasts” are used as mounts here, for instance, or what the economic base of a city-state like Kushat is– that probably have answers in the first book, or earlier stories. (The author wrote about the character in both formats, and not all of the corpus is still in print.)

Genre giant Brackett stands in the Romantic tradition, and represents SF’s “soft” school; she’s known for her “swords-and-planet” tales of adventure and derring-do on mostly low-tech worlds, and her style was shaped in the hey-day of the pulp magazines. Stark himself has affinities to the typical Burroughs hero, or to some of Robert E. Howatd’s protagonists; the appeal of “primitivism” (which I’ve discussed elsewhere) is clearly present here, though in Stark’s case, he’s not a refugee or escapee from civilization. (Of Earth stock, he was born on Mercury, and apparently grew up in a rough setting and circumstances, with trauma that left him carrying a lot of psychological damage.) He’s a bit more rough-edged than , say, John Carter, and indeed can at times seem almost feral. But he’s clearly a person of principle, with a strong sense of loyalty and duty, and a willingness to put his life on the line for what’s right when it really matters.

Fans of this site, however, will be as (or more) interested in the title character here. Given the title and the cover art, we know she’s definitely a fighting female. For perhaps the first half or more of the book, however, some readers might wonder when she’s going to show up. Don’t worry, though –Brackett incorporates one plot element here, at a crucial moment, that’s meant to come as a major surprise. It does to Stark (of course, he didn’t see the cover or read the title!), but it probably won’t to most readers. Not to share any spoilers, but the phrase “hidden in plain sight” might come readily to mind. And our ax-wielding lady’s fighting prowess won’t disappoint.

Of course, if she’s judged honestly and fairly, it has to be admitted that she’s pretty much a villainess in the legitimate definition of the word; she’s motivated by selfish personal ambition for power and status, and she’s quite ruthlessly willing to inflict suffering and death on any number of people who defy that goal. But she’s also a nuanced villainess who does have some genuine good in her, which shows itself in actions. (And sometimes, when the chips are down, a nuanced villainess with some genuine good in her might find that she has the stuff inside to add “heroine” to her resume’….) That degree of nuance makes her an interesting character (at least to me).

Like many SF authors who wrote before the advent of space exploration by unmanned probes, Brackett imagined the other inner planets of our solar system to be much more hospitable to human life than they actually are. Her Mars is a cold, arid world whose fragile ecology depends on the annual summer melting of much of the polar ice cap; but it’s a world with a human-like native race (if they differ from Earth humans in any way, it’s not stated here), with a civilization originating a million years earlier, in the time of a culture hero called Ban Cruach. Much of his story is forgotten and mysterious; but at the end of his life, he passed through the Gates of Death, the high pass that is the only way through the mountains enclosing the uninhabited, permanently frozen region around the North Pole itself, after leaving behind an enigmatic talisman in the northern city of Kushat (which controls access to the pass). Now, at the behest of a dying friend, who stole the talisman years before, Stark is journeying through the bitterly cold Martian winter and across the wild, mountainous North (a region much less civilized than southern Mars) to return the object to Kushat.

Brackett’s world-building is much more plausible than that of Burrough’s Barsoom novels, and (allowing for the basic premise) the science isn’t, to a lay reader like myself, glaringly off-beam. (How the high technology –yes, there is some here, but I’m not writing any spoilers– works isn’t explained, and it’s not extrapolated from any existing technology, but that’s because we’re in the realm of soft SF; the author’s purpose isn’t to speculate about what high technology might someday do, but to use it to tell and enable a story about people in a particular dramatic situation.)

Brackett’s imagination is genuinely original, in a type of story that often wasn’t handled with great originality in the time period when she wrote. The plot covers just a few days, and incorporates a lot of action, usually violent action (corpses at one point are lying in “windrows”), but there’s no graphic wallowing in violence for its own sake. Our main characters here aren’t plaster saints, and we might disapprove (big time, in some cases!) of some of their actions; but they’re each vibrantly alive, understandable men and women whose fate we come to care deeply about. They’ll face conflicts and challenges here that involve extremely high stakes, and that will tax physical, mental and moral strength to overcome (IF they’re overcome….); and the personal interrelationships are complex and emotionally evocative.

Bottom line, if you like an old-school pulp action sci-fi yarn in which the gal gets to swing the sword (or, in this case, the ax) as well as the guy, I think you’ll find this a very good read of the type!

Author: Leigh Brackett
Publisher: Aegypan, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Morgan

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Hannah goes Haywire.”

I watched this twice: once on an airplane flight from London, and once after I returned, and I think I preferred the second viewing. For the ending here, if not perhaps what you’d call a “twist”, does provide a piece of information about the lead character, that will change the way you watch her performance in subsequent viewings. It’s something I appreciate, and also goes a long way to explain what would otherwise potentially be flaws in the plot. Said character is Lee Weathers (Mara), a “risk-management consultant” for a tech company, who is sent to a remote outpost, literally buried in the heart of the countryside.

Its inhabitants have spent more than five years working on developing an artificial life-form; after multiple failed attempts, their current creation, Morgan (Taylor-Joy) had appeared to be doing better. Initially, crafted with talents such as accelerated growth, she (or, as Lee stresses, “it”) is now developing unexpected talents such as precognition. However, a violent streak is also making itself known, culminating in Morgan stabbing one of the researchers in the eye. This is where Weathers comes in, seeking to assess the viability of the project, as well as whether it should continue or not. And if not? Well, as the one-eyed researcher, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, bluntly tells her, “You’re a goddamn assassin.” But Morgan’s creators won’t take that lying down; nor will Morgan her/itself.

Mara captures just the right degree of cold, passionless disinterest, and is helped out by a very solid supporting cast. This includes Leigh as well as Brian Cox, Paul Giamatti and even action heroine icon, Michelle Yeoh, albeit in a non-action role, playing the head of the project. After the opening scene, depicting the eye-stabbing from the POV of the complex’s security cameras, we already know everything is going to kick off, it’s just a matter of when. Given this, the first half could be considered too slow; we really don’t need to be introduced to everyone, because what matters is the Weathers-Morgan dynamic, perhaps with a side of the latter’s closest “relative”, Dr. Menser (Leslie, not without her own action cred, having played Ygritte in Game of Thrones – like GoT, this movie was filmed in Northern Ireland).

The arrival of Dr. Shapiro (Giamatti), the man in charge of carrying out Morgan’s psych evaluation, signals the start of this inevitable escalation of hostilities, and the pace certainly kicks up from that point forward. It’s this aspect which separates it in tone from the similarly-themed Splice, a more horror-oriented story, also about an artificial life-form gone awry. I note the stunt personnel here included Zara Phythian, a British action actress, whose star appears to be on the rise. Despite the loaded cast – it helps having Ridley Scott as a producer! – this was relatively cheap to make, at $8 million, and was somewhat unjustly overlooked on its cinema release. Even if it probably does take two viewings to appreciate it.

Dir: Luke Scott
Star: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Rose Leslie

Iron Girl: Ultimate Weapon

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“Post-apocalyptic soft-porn sci-fi soap-opera.”

irongirlHaving used my entire quota of hyphens for this review in that tag-line, what do we have here? I could remember virtually nothing about the original, even though it was only a couple of years ago we reviewed it. Seems to have ended up with the same vaguely mediocre rating though. The problem here, however, is mostly one of pacing. After a brief flurry of impressive activity at the beginning, there’s not much happening on the action front for about an hour, and what takes its place falls short of adequate entertainment.

It’s the same setting, with Japan’s technocracy having imploded, and the country now a slew of little fiefdoms, where bandits and bounty hunters roam the land. Chris (Asuka) is the latter, trying to raise enough reward money so she can buy a device that will restore her memories. She was unconscious and suffering from amnesia when found by fellow bounty-hunter Kento (Iwanaga) and his sidekick, Miriya (Kishi). Now, with the aid of her nifty cyborg suit ‘n’ sword, she’s taking out the leaders of the Sparti gang, who are less than impressed with her work. So, they lure here away from the peaceful settlement where she lives, and while she’s out, get medieval on the scientists and others who are there. This doesn’t exactly discourage Chris, obviously.

In between the opening, where she saves a brothel from harassment, and the final assault on the Sparti headquarters, there’s not much going on. You get a fair amount of Chris using her sexuality on men, then whacking them in the crotch, to the extent this begins to feel like a Japanese version of Ow! My Balls! [or a Japanese game-show; you decide] This could be a commentary on the male gaze, except the film itself is obviously extremely interested in that perspective of Asuka, as evidenced by the gratuitous shower-scene. There’s obviously some unresolved sexual tension between her and Kento, and she has her own sidekick to fend off, a lecherous guy wearing aviator goggles, who provides broad comic relief. It’s all not very interesting, unfortunately.

The action scenes do seem a little better, with Asuka making a greater impression this time – experience does matter, it seems. If there’s nothing quite as memorable as the opening fight, where she traps an opponent’s sword with her high heels(!), the film delivers some fairly decent battles in the final chunk. Chris works her way up the Sparti chain of command, until facing someone (thing?) who may be her equal in terms of technological enhancements. It’s likely no spoiler to say the film does not end with the heroine recovering her movies, instead setting things up for a third entry in the series. I guess I’ll be watching it, and imagine by the time that happens, I’ll have forgotten all about this second movie, just as much as I did the first.

Dir: Kenichi Fujiwara
Star: Kirara Asuka, Hiroaki Iwanaga, Asuka Kishi, Ryunosuke Kawai

Painkiller Jane – TV Series

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“The pain and strain, stays mainly in the Jane…”

painkiller1Originally created as a comic-book by Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada in the mid-nineties, it told the story of its heroine, Jane Vasko, who became effectively immortal after an incident left her with superhuman regenerative powers. She can still be hurt, certainly – even knocked down – but she heals at a phenomenal rate, rendering her nearly unstoppable. Over the years since, she has crossed paths with a number of other characters, including Hellboy and Vampirella, and the show became a TV movie on SyFy in December 2005, starring Emmanuelle Vaugier as Jane. The film was also used to gauge interest in a potential TV series, and one duly emerged in April 2007, albeit with Kristanna Loken now in the role, and effectively pretending the movie didn’t exist. For example, Jane went back from being a soldier to the law-enforcement agent of the comic, albeit a DEA agent rather than an undercover cop, and the cause of her abilities also became rather less opaque.

Unfortunately, it still wasn’t very good, especially in the early episodes. This is actually my second attempt to review the show: after eight episodes or so in the my original effort, I realized I had entirely abandoned watching them, and simply had them on in the background while I did something else. The return effort proved my attention span was made of sterner stuff, though I admit that I might not have watched every single frame of every single show. But I did make it through to the end, which teases a second series that never materialized, SyFy deciding it would not renew the show in August, with half a dozen episodes remaining to be screened.

painkiller2Certainly, from a 2016 viewpoint, it seems overly familiar, treading territory we’ve seen, with variations, in X-Men, Heroes and Alphas, among others. The core concept here is the “neuro” – someone who has developed an inexplicable paranormal talent which might be anything from invisibility through mind control to fire manipulation. Jane encounters one such on a drug bust at a nightclub, and as a result, is recruited by Andre McBride (Stewart), who leads an undercover team dedicated to capturing and neutralizing neuros. The rest of the team are the usual bunch of shallow stereotypes e.g. computer wiz Riley Jensen (Roberts), ex-military muscle Connor King (Danby), etc. but Jane is “different” in that her first mission results in her neuro-esque ability being awakened, after she is defenestrated from a high-rise window. I say “neuro-esque,” since there’s an ongoing vague debate as to whether she should be chipped and shipped off to NICO, the internment camp set up for the “special”.

After that, however, the show rapidly became not much more than a series of “neuro of the week” episodes, effectively abandoning much real interest in its heroine and her abilities. To some extent, I can understand this: once you’ve established that she is, literally, bulletproof, what more can you do? There’s not much sense of threat. But outside of sporadic examples, the creators didn’t make sufficient use of Vasko’s abilities, which could certainly have come useful, as the most extreme example of “taking one for the team” Nor do they bother to give her much life outside the disused subway station which is her team’s super-secret lair. There’s a brief friendship with the girl next door, which comes to a sudden end with so little impact, it feels like the actress involved must have demanded a pay rise or something. Then there’s a boyfriend, and at least that relationship does end up having a point – like the rest of the show, however, it takes far too long to get there.

For after initially setting up an evil corporation as the Big Bad, the series seem to forget about them completely for the next 20 episodes, before suddenly blowing the dust of the company for the final episode. It seems likely that never-realized second season might have gone in that direction, though if that was always the intent, seems very odd to start off as they did. The budget was apparently jacked up for the final three episodes, allowing for the cast and crew to travel to Hungary and the NICO facility, where it turns out there have been various dubious medical experiments going on, involving reversing the chips implanted to disable the neuro abilities. There are some interesting moral questions raised in this arc, and it’s a shame the show chose to ignore them, until after it had been given the ace.

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That isn’t to say the show was entirely worthless up to that point. There were a few episodes which actually made use of the concepts and developed them in interesting ways. The one I liked most was Playback, about a neuro who could reset time to the beginning of the day. He was being used to plot the assassination of a visiting foreign politician, gradually refining his plan to negate the countermeasures of Jane and her team, as if this were Groundhog Day. Jane’s ability to take damage came in handy here, and the script was well-thought out, both in problem and solution; while they couldn’t foil the neuros plan, they could make the rest of his day such a bad one, he was compelled to rewind one more time. More of this smart invention would have been welcome, but the show instead seemed to run out of ideas almost immediately. I mean, a handful of episodes in, and you’re already going down the “ghost hunters” route? Why not just have a musical episode and be done with it?

AS in most things she has done – hell, even BloodRayne – Loken is fine, and seems to embrace the action aspects with enthusiasm. I’d say that gives her the edge over her predecessor, Vaugier, and the series likely solidifies her position on the B-rung of action actresses [“Can’t afford Milla Jovovich? Give me a call!”] It’s the writing that is the key weakness here, often giving the impression that they were making things up as they went along, never a good thing. Still, it may not be the end for Jane. In July 2014, it was announced that Palmiotti was producing an independent feature film version, with the Soska Sisters signing on to direct. While I’m not sure about them as a choice [I saw their horror film American Mary, and found it very much over-rated], and I haven’t heard anything much regarding the project since, it’s interesting that adapting Painkiller Jane appears to be every bit as difficult to kill off as the character herself!

Star: Kristanna Loken, Rob Stewart, Noah Danby, Sean Owen Roberts