The Real Alternative to Yellow Spandex

I want to talk about Chronicle, because I finally got around to watching it, and I really enjoyed it, and contrary to my last couple of reviews I do actually like talking about things I enjoy. But first, I want to talk about whether I should be talking about Chronicle, here.

For those who don't know, Chronicle is about three teenagers who find a thing in a cave that grants them telekinetic powers. My first instinct was to classify it as action sci-fi. And I'm not alone in that; the Lovely Madam Meagan did the same after we watched it, and the first seven words in its Wikipedia entry are "Chronicle is a 2012 science fiction film'. But then I stopped and tried to think about why Chronicle is a science fiction film, and I realized I couldn't come up with a single thing. The thing the boys encounter isn't obviously technological. Their abilities are as likely the result of some bizarre natural radiation producing a mutation. Or, heck, magic. The thing is never studied, at least not by the boys, and their abilities are never explained as being some previously-untapped ability all humans possess. There are no aliens, no lasers or force-fields, no super soldiers, no robots or battle armour. Nothing in this film is particularly science fiction-y. Frankly, it's more fantasy than anything else, albeit a rather dark sort. But because it doesn't involve wizards or vampires or werewolves, nobody seems to think of it that way.

Science fiction, it seems, now constitutes anything fantastical that isn't explicitly magical or supernatural. Which is weird, because it means the genre picks up things like Chronicle and Hancock, good films that don't actually have anything to do with where they wind up. Are superhero movies just science fiction by default, now?

Still, if we're going to wind up with movies arbitrarily crammed into the science fiction genre, it's nice when they're as good as Chronicle. The movie follows three high school boys, Andrew, Matt and Steve. Andrew is the son of an abusive father and a dying mother, and his purchase of a hilariously oversized portable camera starts the film. Dragged out to a party by his cousin Matt, Andrew is spotted by Steve, the school's resident cool kid who, surprisingly, is just a really nice guy. Rather than bullying or insulting Andrew, Steve actually wants a favour; can Andrew come record this amazing thing he and Matt have found with his omnipresent camera? The thing, frankly, defies description, and not just because whatever energy it's putting out is interfering with the camera. It looks star-shaped, some form of glowing crystal half-obscured by rock, and demonstrates some rather impressively strange properties. From their exposure to it the boys discover they've gained telekinesis, a power that's roughly equal for all of them but finds expression in ways particular to each of the three's temperaments. And unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, the temperament of a bullied outcast with an alcoholic and abusive father and a slowly and painfully dying mother is perhaps not the best one to entrust with powerful telekinetic abilities.

Chronicle is, first and foremost, a character piece. For all its mysterious power sources and superhero-style antics, the movie is really about Andrew and Matt. Steve is a decidedly minor character, though he gets some good moments, and the movie certainly wouldn't play out the same without him. The movie's driving conflict, in the absence of supervillains or monsters, is the struggle between Andrew and Matt, between an abused and bullied kid who suddenly finds himself with more power than anyone else, and a smug and pretentious but ultimately level-headed kid who understands that they need rules and boundaries. Matt is afraid of them doing something terrible, by accident or on purpose; Andrew is tired of having the terrible things in life happen only to him. Competing outlooks based on radically different upbringings set the cousins on a collision course that is as obvious and inevitable as it is believable and tragic.

The acting is solid, probably made easier by the fact that there are only really a handful of characters in the film. The handheld style of the movie helps with viewer perception of the actors' presentations, as well; the semi-intimate feel of the well-executed affectation draws the viewer in. It's a nice touch, and it more than the lack of costumes and wise old uncles really sets this film apart from the superhero genre. Not enough to escape being reflexively labelled science fiction, of course, but still. There are some weak elements, particularly a romance subplot for Matt that just sort of peters out, but on the whole the focus is kept tight, on the increasing friction between responsible Matt and predatory Andrew.

Whether you like superhero movies or not, Chronicle is definitely worth a look. And it's done well enough that it's got a sequel in the works, something I'm looking forward to. Perhaps this time I'll even manage to make it to the theatres before it closes up its run!


Fallin' Down On the Job

Star Trek: Titan: Fallen Gods (Star Trek books do love their colons), by Micheal A. Martin, is full of interesting ideas and setup. Unfortunately, for the most part, these elements aren't fully realized and resolved. This book picks some serious topics and elides around them as hard as possible.

The story picks up not long after the previous Titan adventure, as chronicled in Star Trek: The Typhon Pact Book 2: Seize the Fire (see what I mean about colons?), and carries through several threads from the larger TNG/DS9 era expanded universe. The Federation is still trying to deal with the massive devastation and dislocation caused by the Last Borg Invasion. At the same time, it is trying to come to terms with the secession of Andor. The Andorians are desperate, in the face of a reproductive crisis that could well reach extinction levels. And the Typhon Pact, particularly the Tholians, are involved deeply with Andor. It's a solid bit of fractured setting to build a compelling narrative of conflicting aims and ends, and in that Martin does a decent job.

Captain Riker and the USS Titan have discovered a planet orbiting an immensely deadly pulsar. Shockingly, the planet appears to be inhabited, a fact made possible only by a hugely enhanced geomagnetic field to absorb and deflect the pulsar's considerable broad-band radiation output. When it appears the artificial field may have some connection to the terraforming device found, and destroyed, in Seize the Fire, Riker decides it might be worth investigating. That investigation becomes even more imperative when a maintenance AI on the planet forcibly mind-melds with Tuvok and an AI Titan picked up in Synthesis, Sentry SecondGen White-Blue; the two Titan crewmembers had attempted a similar link with the terraforming device, and the maintenance AI recognised elements of its makers' code in their minds. But with the mind-meld risky, and potentially irreversible if left to continue too long, the pulsar getting steadily more violent and the geomagnetic field on the edge of collapse, such an investigation could be dangerous. Add to that a civil war being fought by the descendants of the Ais builders on the planet, between Preservationists/Keepers and Deconstructonists/Trashers, Starfleet Command's orders that all Andorian officers be reassigned to 'less sensitive' positions, and Andor's demands that all reproductive-age Andorians be sent back to Andor and the newly-reconstituted Imperial Guard's willingness to enforce that order, and you have a pretty wild set of circumstances that would allow for an exploration of any number of issues.

Unfortunately, as I said, Fallen Gods does not fully embrace its difficult subject matter. Much time is given to establishing the alien civil war, including several chapters from the viewpoint of the Preservationist leader, but ultimately it's never really an issue for the Starfleet characters in the book. It's a thing that's happening when they reach the planet, something that inconveniences them slightly, but no more than bad weather or predatory wildlife would've. The same is true of the efforts to get the maintenance AI back to the planet and the magnetic field generators repaired. The book spends ages having characters discuss the pros and cons of going, of how to go, of when to go, and then covers them actually going. But then they just drop the maintenance AI off in a convenient console and leave, playing no role in actually resolving any of the issues. The worst-handled storyline, however, certainly belongs to the Andorian Imperial Guard's efforts to 'liberate' reproductive-age Andorians from Titan.

The book skirts around the AIG commander's plan for an unnecessarily long time, since anyone familiar with The Next Generation should quickly figure out what it consists of. Unfortunately, with all that evasion and forced mystery, there's no time left to delve into the ramifications of it, which are absolutely massive. The moral stain on the Andorians who are participating in it, the mental anguish and existential collapse of the Starfleet Andorians subjected to it, neither are given any particular weight. Indeed, the actual issue isn't directly addressed by any characters until literally the last page of the story. One can only hope, rather desperately, that the next book will actually put some work into exploring this issue on a personal and societal level, rather than faffing about with artificial mysteries that dedicated Star Trek fans (and who else would be reading a Star Trek: Titan book?) will see through in a few pages.

Fallen Gods has all the pieces necessary to be a really compelling novel. Frankly, it has all the pieces necessary to be several really compelling novels. But its refusal to actually engage with any of its topics in detail, to build up meaningful drama and suspense, to present serious threats and stakes, hampers it. The book is enjoyable enough while you're reading it, but upon putting it down don't be surprised if your first thought is a rather plaintive, 'Is that it?'


This Is Why I So Rarely Bother

I wouldn't consider myself a major comics fan, but I've been known to pick up a book or two. Empowered, Transformers, Morning Glories, Power Girl. A few others, here and there. Mostly, though, I don't get drawn into that world too deeply, because the big two so rarely put out the sorts of stories I want to read. Things look good at first, but once you actually get into it everything sort of falls apart spectacularly.

Big Hero 6 is a pretty good example of that.

Shocking, I know, but bare with me.

On the surface, it all looks solid. A kid. A robot. A girl in high-tech armour. A giant monster.  A dude with swords. What more could you ask for out of a Japanese superhero team? And the action starts off pretty well, too. The kid, Hiro, is attacked at school by a trio of supervillains. When the rest of the team arrives to rescue him and defeat the villains, it turns out they were unwitting human pawns, possessed by some mysterious force. Worse, they were just a diversion, a cover for the real criminals, men in suits and ties who slipped into a nearby bank while everyone was distracted and walked out with a mysterious and powerful artifact, one piece from a set of six. With several other pieces already missing, and a past connection between the artifacts and BH6's mysterious commander Furi, the team is dispatched to America to guard the the lab where the last of the artifacts is being studied. What is the danger these artifacts represent? Who sent those three supervillains? Why is the team called Big Hero 6 when it's only made up of five people? All these questions, and more... are never really answer.

BH6 starts off strong, with a good fight scene, some nice teamwork, establishing moments for each of the characters and their abilities, and a solid mystery hook. And then it just absolutely collapses under the weight of its own terrible plotting and a frankly baffling refusal to resolve anything. The miniseries is kind of a perfect snapshot of why I'm so frustrated by mainstream superhero comic books these days. The one thing I will say for it is that it's not hair-pullingly decompressed. In fact, this five-issue miniseries actually finishes (though not resolves, mark) its main plot early enough that it needs to bring in a secondary plot in order to fill out the space. Not that it actually has any connection to the miniseries' overall plot, other than a tenuous geographical one. But that's about it. The supervillains' origin is revealed, but that only raises more questions, on the part of both the characters and the reader. It's flat-out stated that the person orchestrating them (who never even gets a name, nevermind a real motivation or character) must be working for someone else, but who, or to what ends, is never even suggested. The artifacts are maguffins from start to finish. With absolutely no establishment Furi's false eye suddenly gains a villain-defeating ability. And the racial stereotypes, and the sexism...

Honestly, superhero comics are sort of uncomfortable to read these days if you're even the tiniest bit sensitive to things like realistic depictions of non-Americans or fair-minded depictions of women. And BH6 manages to hit just about everything. One of the team's members is Wasabi no Ginger, a sushi chef who can use Qi energy and knows martial arts and constantly wears a headband and a chef's overshirt. He also looks like he's about thirty-five, which isn't a stereotype, but makes his going undercover as a high school student particularly idiotic. And the two young women, GoGo Tomago and Honey Lemon, are just... just...

Look. They're attractive young women with power and confidence, so it's not unthinkable that they would dress in a daring manner. But there's daring, and then there's just having clothes defy physics in order to more completely and totally hyper-sexualize a teenage girl. At one point GoGo is wearing a North American school gym uniform whose shirt, in defiance of all the memories frustrated teenage boys have of those years, the behaviour of fabric under tension and the possibilities of cutting-edge bra technology, manages to cling to both of her breasts. Simultaneously. Separately. That is, up the outside of one breast, down to her ribcage in between, and then back up the inside of the other. Linkara coined the term 'boob-sock' for this sort of thing while reviewing a Catwoman elseworlds, and there's really no better way to put it. These are boob-socks with a neckline and sleeves; actual shirts do not work this way!

One of these women can only be seen by people 18 and older with a valid credit card, and the 
other by any schoolkid with some pocket change.  Care to guess which is which?

And as for Honey Lemon?  Her tendency to go into battle wearing street clothes could almost, almost make sense, given her lack of powered armour and reliance on her deus ex machina-generating magic purse (yes, a woman with a magic purse). Except that towards the end Hiro, a total noncombatant, is given a lightly-armoured combat suit, that in no way restricts his movement and provides at least some small protection, right out of the blue. Making it clearly wasn't laborious, since a second, minor character gets a similar outfit (but she's a girl, so of course hers is pink) at the same time. So why hasn't Honey been wearing any kind of protection at all, why has she been fighting in a pair of incredibly low-cut skintight pants and a bra masquerading as a shirt, given that she's no more invulnerable than any other human on the planet?

Big Hero 6 was a pretty thorough disappointment. Despite a strong start, it just collapses into all of the worst excesses of modern comic books; non-Americans reduced to national stereotypes, attractive young women drawn in the skimpiest, most skin-tight, physics-defying clothing imaginable, a refusal to tie up loose ends and adequately resolve plot threads within a storyline, heroes who will fight each other at the drop of a hat, and superpowered individuals nonsensically sticking it to The Man by breaking the law and interfering with the police when it's completely unnecessary. I'm glad this was just a miniseries, because at least with a finite run there's a hard limit to the amount of fail you can work into it.