Tuesday, December 21, 2010

TRON Legacy Review and Thoughts About the Future of the Future

First off, SPOILERS. Let's just get that out of the way. Don't read the rest unless you've seen the film. Seriously, I don't want to spoil anyone's enjoyment.

Okay, ready? Let's begin.

Generally, I really enjoyed Tron: Legacy. It was a great popcorn flick. We saw it in an IMAX 3D, deeming it  worthy of the extra scratch. The action scenes were 199% mind-meltingly cool. This is undeniable and I'm in agreement with Roger Ebert's take on how both this and it's predecessor are state-of-the-art snapshots of each era. 
I'm also a huge Daft Punk fan, and I was impressed with the way they wove the electronic synth into an orchestral treatment for the score. The film's overall design and aesthetics are amazing, and this too, can't be soured upon.

What Didn't Click Into Place
There was one aspect though that really didn't sit well with me--and it is a major point that actually affected the entire film. In fact, I think all the film's shortcomings can be traced to this one aspect. For the most part, Clu (aka Kevin Flynn / Jeff Bridges) seems like a formidable heavy for a good chunk of the film, until we learn what he's really up to. As it turns out, he's doing the same thing that Emperor Palpatine is doing (and Ming the Merciless, and any other cartoony bad-guy) "...he's building an army!"

Let's talk frankly about this well trod trope. It's a waste. We've seen it so many times that actually seeing it/hearing it on screen instigates a volley eyerolls and groans. I recall that MCP in the original was trying to take over the human world by acquiring programs--a novel and believable route to supremacy.

In "Legacy", this cyber world is totally isolated from and had no ability to influence humans—even though the reality is that Clu could have done much more damage to humanity today than ever before.
Imagine if the prominence of the internet, the loss of individual privacy, the banking (economic) meltdown, breakdowns in international security—even slow reactions to environmental disasters—had all been orchestrated by Clu behind the scenes. He’s more than just a nefarious hacker—he IS the Internet!

THAT is the villain Tron needed. Not some, “I’m going to make an army and march into reality”. Maybe as a final step after softening us up. But that would have been in movie 2 or 3. In this one it just wasn’t believable feasible.

The result was that the world of Tron (my wife calls it "Tronlandia!") ends up being very disconnected from the world that created it--and that's something that we all know to be false. The fact is, we're more integrated with technology than at any point in history. If that weren't true, you wouldn't be reading this blog.
Clu was Flynn's architectural partner. It would have made more sense if their collaboration, falling out, and subsequent conflict should have been influencing human history "behind the scenes". Like somehow creating the tech boom of the 90s, and then Clu overtaking Tronlandia would be the burst of the Internet bubble (that's actually 10 years too late according to events in the film, but you get the idea).

But instead they existed in a vacuum where Clu only sought to invade and destroy the human world. Regardless of the physics of it, it's not believable from a story standpoint because he doesn't have an investment in that world like the MCP did. Why would he need to go there? It's never made clear.

This is why I feel like the Clu character was key--without a clear and believable motivation that ties to our "reality" he's lost, and the filmmakers spin their wheels trying to decide what to do with everyone else's plot points. By making Clu little more than cyber-Hitler we get end up getting bad subplots such as the Jedi-like "purge" of the Iso programs (of which Quorra is the lone survivor) and more sci-fi plot filler is unnecessarily added to the mix. 
The result of these bad ideas in a good premise culminate with an climax that should have put kept philosophy major's flapping for weeks. Clu and Flynn (Bridges) inevitably reintegrate and annihilate (like matter and antimatter) destroying everything in Tronlandia. Wouldn't this in effect destroy the Internet? Wouldn't all data be erased? Nope, it's just an isolated incident that has no effect on the human world.

While, I'm not entirely sure if the film overcame these faults, I think it will continue to be remembered much in the same way as the original: cutting edge, perhaps to the point of falling off of it, but "oh, what a ride!".

More Positives
I really liked the Bridges-as-Zen Buddhist theme. It's believable--not because he's "The Dude" either. But because young Flynn (circa '82) was very carefree in an almost enlightened manner. I could see how being trapped would force a more mature Flynn to concentrate inward in order to protect his individuality in a world where identity is stripped away as a matter of doing business. I think Garrett Hedlund's turn as Sam Flynn was also well portrayed and he not only was he well cast (he looks and has mannerisms like Bridges did in his youth) but the scenes he shares with Bridges are essential to making the relationship believable, and they're able to pull them off in a sincere but rightfully understated manner.

Probably the best "idea" though, is the one that will likely get the least amount of credit. The notion of programs having their own DNA-like coding was a brilliant fusion of what's going on in programming today with the fantasy of Tronlandia. THIS is where the real magic of the world should have come from. It was beautifully depicted onscreen and the only issue I had was that I wanted to see more of it. Jeff Bridges pulling out tiny damaged flecks of code out of Quorra's "DNA" like they were pieces of lint was supremely cool and existential all at once.

Finally, I also liked the fact that Tronlandia was "wiped" like a bad hard drive by the Flynn/Clu reintegration. It had an air of Eastern philosophy in that by achieving "oneness" everything was destroyed--like a reversal of the Big Bang. The universe resets at zero in the process--at least everything except Tron himself who was safely underwater during the event (in case you forgot).

What Could Have Been, What Could Still Be

That might be the best chance Tron has for a comeback yet--the world will need to be recreated all over again and it doesn't need to cling to any notions held in the previous films. It can become something completely new. Imagine a Tron film that exists in realspace where Quorra (Olivia Wilde) is a new species of digital human and opens the doors to curing diseases by controlling DNA--even atomic structure itself--digitally. A world where our reality is controlled as efficiently and effortlessly as the digital one in which I'm now writing.

The program becomes the creator. The user and program are one.

That'd be something to see....but I don't see Disney making that movie any time soon.


Friday, December 10, 2010

What if Dr. Seuss Did Star Wars?

These had me smiling instantly (and the Taun Taun had me in stiches!) Talk about "far out", they're a series of incredible illustrations from the supremely talented Adam Watson:

You can also buy prints of these. So awesome!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Far Out Space Fantasy PCs

After a few miniature buying binges, a fever of Rientsian Star Wars inspiration, and multiple, late night viewings of Message From Space on Netflix, my brain spit out a these far-out, space fantasy guys.

It actually all started this past summer when I found an old Star Wars rip off action figure case that I'd been remembering from childhood but never owned until recently:

I know it's terrible, but man, I'm diggin' that artwork! I also wonder how Johnny Quest's dad in the corner got mixed up with those wacky space dudes (is that a wookiee Mama Cass holding a socket wrench?).

Fast forward to present day and I'm hunting down some of the more zany, vintage metal minis from Gamma World, Star Frontiers, and other off-brand sci-fi lines. I've been having fun coming up with bios based on them.

Here's what I've worked up so far:

Scam Zolo

Scam is what happens when Han Solo doesn't go to the Imperial Academy. He's basically a low-life (smuggler, gambler, career criminal) for hire. I'd been wondering about the type of character Greedo might have become had he been on Han's crew, rather than on the business end of a blaster. I imagine he'd be the Steve Buscemi of the galaxy. He's also a  bit of a mutant which is fitting since he's more than a few steps removed from our favorite Corellian captain.

King Tusken
Owing much to the figure's actual size (squarely @ 28mm)  King Tusken lives up to his namesake. I'd like to think that when the raiders need to pick a chieftain, there's some sort of mystical ceremony that transforms him into a dire sand person (wookie sized with actual ram horns). KT travels across the Jundland Wastes and Dune Sea with an entourage of the toughest raiders, acting as a combination of warlord, judge, pimp, and tribal medicine man. He's also the best sharpshooter in the tribes (how do you think he got to be king?) and that bantha blaster he carries is custom made from "salvaged" Imperial tech.

Volcan Voxx
What if Darth Vader had Boba Fett's job? Volcan is an intergalactic badass of few words (much like Darth and Boba) but he's parlayed his cosmic Sith-like intuition and lifelong battle-hardened attitude into being truly worthy of "the most feared bounty hunter in the galaxy". Cursed with having to wear a breathing apparatus after a job-gone-wrong, Voxx pursues his quarry with vicious vigor--as if each of them were payback for his terrible deformities. Speaking of which, this fig came without a left hand. I'm still deciding if that's backstory worthy, or if I should give him a second weapon like a screw-on bionic hand or interchangeable weapons like Trapjaw.

Xarth Raiden
I've often been amused with Kenner's gaffe in the 80s when they confused Lucasfilm's notes for 4-LOM and Zuckuss (and who hasn't really?) and swapped their names on the action figure cardbacks. Basically, Xarth is a recasting of Vader using both bounty hunters. He's an insectoid, alien, warlock, more cold and calculating than the Sith Lord ever was. His environment suit is a hefty upgrade over the "prison" Anakin Skywalker endured. Xarth's threads are customized cyborg implants with all manner of sensors to amplify his inherited insect abilities and learned psionic talents.
Apologies for the craptastic photos, but you get the idea.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Irvin Kershner, Director of Empire Strikes Back is Dead

Irvine Kershner, image: Lucasfilm
The Hollywood Reporter and New York Times are reporting that Irvin Kershner, director of Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back has passed away. I'm so sad to learn this as Empire has long been my favorite of the original trilogy movies.

Empire was the dramatic engine of the trilogy and turned a wild and wooly ride into the stuff of myth. Here's to a sharp, creative mind that will be deeply missed.

A slight interruption

So, at the beginning of the month I was all psyched about getting back to the blogosphere after some reoccurring computer virus nastiness. Well fate intervened and took one look at my eagerness and promptly blasted it into atoms by snapping the hinge on my laptop, thus rendering it a flop-top.

While the computer itself still works, the monitor is shot. Factor in the holiday, an uptick in real-life work, and a new RPG side project, and it's no wonder the lot of blogs lain fallow for a few weeks. This past weekend I remedied the situation by picking up a new little netbook to get me by and I'm quite pleased with it. I finally finished transferring my project files to it last night, so blogging will resume shortly. Thanks for hangin' in there.

As a consolation, I offer this sweet collection of retro-space art. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Friends of Starship Warden: Gamma World Creator Jim Ward is Very Ill

I'm a bit behind the curve on this, but still wanted to pass along that Jim Ward, author of Metamorphosis Alpha, the original Gamma World, and one of TSR's founding editors has fallen seriously ill and is in need of some help. His family and close friends have set up a website to help alleviate some of the cost of his care. From the website:
He has been diagnosed, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, with a serious neurological disorder. The gaming world came close to saying goodbye to yet another of the pioneers of RPGing several months ago. The experts say that Jim's condition is treatable and manageable, but will remain very serious forever.

Jim is very, very slowly recovering; every day is a new skirmmish with the disorder. He still suffers from acute bouts of dizziness and a pervasive lassitude due to bodily energy issues.

While Jim and his family are fortunate to have some health insurance, the co-pays are mounting at an alarming rate, having hit five digits some while ago and showing no signs of abating any time soon.
Having had a grandmother treated there for Alzheimer's, I can vouch that the Mayo Clinic provides amazing neurologic care. If you've enjoyed any of Mr. Ward's fine work, this Thanksgiving weekend would seem to be an ideal time to visit Friends of Starship Warden and share your appreciation.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Is "The Lost Future" SyFy's Foray into Gamma World?

Either I don't watch enough TV (that hardly seems possible!) or this is bound to be so bad that they didn't bother promoting it. But the SyFy Channel is premiering a new movie-of-the-week that skirts very close to Gamma World territory. It stars Sean Bean (of LotR fame) as a primitive tribesman living among civilization's ruins. Check out the trailer and this blurb from IMDB:
A group of post-apocalyptic survivors, struggle to survive in a world where jungles and forests and primeval wetlands and deserts have obliterated civilization. They staunchly face genetically mutating beasts and mysterious diseases in an attempt to re-establish the human race as masters of Earth.
SyFy's webpage is even more sparse on details, but I did spot a mention that the mutations are caused by a disease, rather than nuclear radiation or the happy-black-hole-maker.

Here's another preview (which looks hokey/generic):

Ah man, I'm sorry you had to see that. (And I doubly apologize for SyFy's atrociously obnoxious vid player). But the trailer looks slightly more GW-like. Might be worth checking out for some B-movie fun. For me, it's going to have to wait until it's replayed since I'll be seeing Skyline Saturday!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Obi Wan Kenobi: Idiot!

Warning: following is a rant by an unabashed Star Wars fanboy.

Okay, so I'm working on a few projects with the tube on in the background--Star Wars Attack of the Clones is on Spike (Surprise!). The film is fine, it's not my favorite of the series, but it's passable while I'm working.

In truth I've seen it many times (we own both trilogies) but tonight I came to a realization--Obi Wan Kenobi is the galaxy's worst investigative jedi.

"I don't know why I'm still watching--the prequels don't even get interesting 'till half-way through the last one!"
He spends the better part of the film tracking Jango Fett--a mysterious and obvious miscreant-- from Coruscant, to Kamino, and finally to Geonosis. On Kamino (rainy planet) he learns that Fett is used as the template for an army of clones that the Republic will be footing the bill for. He witnesses them being trained by the thousands, firsthand. He even HAS A CONVERSATION WITH HIM and Fett tells asks him "Do you like your army?" You know--the same army that HE'LL BE FIGHTING LATER ON.

Shortly after their odd staring competition, they fight. Fett escapes, but Kenobi pursues him to the rocky planet Geonosis where the enemies of the Republic are building a droid army. Again, he sees firsthand, the enemy droids being assembled by the thousands. You'd think it might occur to him that, "Oh that's weird, we just left one army-building facility...look, here's another!" All without asking why the human template for the clones is working for the bad guys. Jedi are apparently oblivious when it comes to corporate conflict of interest on a galactic level.

"Yeah we've got matching pajamas/bath robes too, but full dental? I knew we were getting screwed!"

It would be like following Dogg the Bounty Hunter from the marine base at Quantico and trailing him straight to an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan where he happens to stroll right in without incident--and the whole time never raising one iota of suspicion.

Later, Fett confirms he's working for the separatists when he STANDS NEXT TO DOOKU (Osama Bin Laden?) AS THEY FIGHT THE JEDI. This pretty much cements the connection between the two facilities. Hundreds of Jedi witness this, including members of the Jedi Council. Nobody in the Jedi Order seems to care because they collect on the pre-ordered clones (hello? Human trafficking!) and think nothing of it. Naturally, all are completely surprised when their troops turn out to be duds and start killing good guys in the sequel.

All the while--no one wonders if both sides might actually be working for the bad guys.

More proof that the Republic skimps on dental coverage.
So, a few questions:

1. Aren't jedis, like, the wisest, most perceptive people in the galaxy?
2. Wouldn't any of this raise a red flag with the Jedi Council--Obi wan keeps them up to date via holo-phone after all?

It all starts with Obi Wan Kenobi, the densest, least perceptive person in the universe.

Again, I don't expect much from AotC, but seriously.


/end rant

Fueled up and back on track!

Seriously, again? WTF?!
After a (too long) involuntary hiatus spent repelling yet another attack from cyberspace invaders, I've been slowly ramping back up to full power. I actually had to leave it with the shop for a WEEK. It took another week of running updates and backing up files and now things seem to be running smoothly again.

So, what does this mean exactly? Well, we're back on track for the return of Far Out Finds next Sunday and a whole slew of other goodness that I've been writing in--let's call it--"analog mode" (see right).

In any case, I'm a big believer in making up for falling short of the goal line, so I offer up a few time(space) killing links that will surely suck up any free moments you had planned for something more productive. (Note to self: "Timespace Killers" sounds like a cool idea for some sort of dimensional hit squad!)....

Anyway, you get what I mean--you click on a link that seems inoccuous enough and the next thing you know 4 hours have gone by. Here's a few recent time holes I've lost time too:
So those should keep you occupied while I get a few more posts in this week.

Expiscor Eternus!

    Monday, October 25, 2010

    My trip to Gamma Terra...

    Here's a pic I took of the event poster, in where else? The bathroom (no lie).
    Saturday, I attended the Gamma World release event--Gamma World Game Day--at the Source Comics and Games (my FLGS) here in the Twin Cities. It's been about a year since I've played D&D 4E, and I have to say I felt really rusty. In fact, I'm sure I annoyed some of the other players, but in my defense I played the "newb" at the table so I ended up with several people helping me along with some of the crunch.

    The Source held two sessions (11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.) each running about four hours. Since I'd been offered tickets to go see the Gopher game in the morning (they lost--surprise!) I went to the latter. After signing up, I was placed at a table with four other players (three of whom who were pals) and another fellow. They all seemed like nice guys, the three who knew each other seemed to be regular--or at least non-novice-- 4E players and had things down pat. We all began as 1st Level PCs. Our little A-Team of mutants consisted of:
    • Chitter-Chitter: a rat swarm in humanoid form that had psionic powers and wielded the Skillet of Justice™
    • Catnip: a feline plant who later acquired a Heavy-lift Harness (think Ripley in Aliens)
    • Frank: I misheard his origin, but I think he was an enhanced human of some kind with a hoverboard and and fantastically high mechanics skill
    • Kenshiro: again, chargen was somewhat chaotic, but I think he was made out of rock or metal, he swung a brick flail
    • Zeke the Beak: a giant hawkoid who swung a full-sized mailbox and a harpoon gun, and donned armor made of salvaged ironing boards
    I played Zeke. Here's a rendering:
    Zeke's stats (with modifiers:
    STR: 18 (+4)
    DEX: 14 (+2)
    CON: 16 (+3)
    WIS: 16 (+3)
    INT: 10 (n/a)
    CHA: 7 (-2)
    HP: 28 / Bloodied: 14
    Zeke had a Nature skill with a +4, which came in completely useless as he had a habit of rolling natural 1's. Oh, and being a hawkoid, he could of course fly his speed (6).

    AC: 18
    Fortitude: 14
    Reflex: 13
    Will: 14

    The demo module, "Trouble in Freesboro" has five encounters. *Spoiler!* We started outside on a lonely highway and came across some porkers (humanoid pigs) and a swarm of radioactive birds which proved down-right tough to kill. That encounter lasted forever. Later we sauntered over to a research lab where we fought some bots on a rooftop and made our way into the main event (thus skipping two encounters).

    There has already been plenty of reviews of the material included in the new set, unboxing videos, and plenty of discussion, so I won't rehash, but I will tell you my initial impressions. For ease, I'll just bullet:
    • First off, we'd all purchased our own booster cards as required by WotC and the store, though the GM was a swell guy and I want to say he'd have been lenient and let us share or borrow a few from his deck.
    • As we all know, 4E is heavy on the crunch, and that's not diluted in Gamma World, however it does play a bit faster and looser. For instance, stats on single and two-handed weapons are listed without going into every permutation thereof, my two-handed mailbox was just as as deadly as say a two-handed parking meter.
    • I'll admit, I'm an idiot sometimes, but I was annoyed that the character sheet and stat blocks for powers (in the manual) are an overcrowded nightmare. Half the time I couldn't tell what I was looking at, let along what blank I had to fill in. Being an idiot in a rush to complete his character didn't help.
    • We did roll quite a few skills that (if it were an OSR game) we likely didn't need to roll for. Frank's mechanic skill (padded through bonuses and some equipment he'd acquired) often ended up in the 30+ range. Yet the GM had him roll his mechanics skill at least three times--twice to defeat door locks.  After a while the GM did relent, again, in the interest of moving things along. I wish this were less a GM-style issue, and more encouraged by the rules themselves.
    • Damage in GW is insanely brutal, with many rounds running like a live-action cartoon of carnage. While fun, we  were warned early and often that we may have to roll up new PCs.
    • The prospect of chargen during the game seems ridiculous to me since it took so long in the first place. The GM had his hands full with the five of us rolling up shiny new PCs. Even with 4E players using a photo copy of the armor and origin tables, it took nearly 40 min. While it would go much faster once you knew what you were doing, each origin has it's own inherited powers so you'd better be familiar with the book if you want it go faster. I had my own solution.*
    •  Apart from these, I'm actually a big fan of the random booster cards. They were definitely the stars of the show and made for an exciting game overall. Early previews of the game had criticized it with more power-boosting/munchkining, but since the game's main strength is its outlandishness (and frankly, it's point) I see this as a benefit.
    • Alpha mutations make up not only your origin, but play a big part from encounter to encounter.  
    • Omega tech is likely far too powerful for OSR tastes, being plentiful in the way of a deck each player can collect, and having the ability to be "overcharged" to enhance performance, but often limits it to single or limited use.
    • All in all I had a lot of fun and I'd play again, though it's quite apparent that so much of the game is sucked up checking rules. This seems like it would be the case for anyone (GM or PCs) learning a new game though, so might not be a big issue in the long run.
    Adventure-wise, I don't even know that it would be worth while to recap the whole debacle because it was insane!  Here I thought my giant birdman slapping people around with a mailbox would be the life of the party--but the scene stealer was Catnip climbing up the side of the lab building in the load harness by punching holes in the exterior wall. Even better was his descent down a stairwell that, uh, didn't go so well for the stairs.While we ended up with Catnip and Kenshiro down to 1 and 2 HP respectively, our claim to fame was becoming one of the few groups that day to have all PCs make it the end alive. Quite the feat when you figure that despite the harsh combat, the GM didn't pull any punches.

    While all four of the guys playing were great roleplayers, Frank's player sort of became the default "leader" tracking initiative, helping move things along, and knew his rules (even helping the GM) and this made for a better, smoother game experience.

    In the end, Zeke flew away with:
    • 420 XP
    • A downed robot's head, which he sported as a hat
    • A kalidoscope that which he eventually traded with Chitter-Chitter for a pair of swim goggles
    The Source received a few extra copies of the module and by the end of the night they gave a few to interested parties, such as myself, which was much appreciated! I'd ordered the game online and it arrived at home the day I played (fate!) so I was pleased as punch to dig into the material.
    While it would have been nice to have them included in the box, I had the chance to pick out my own set of "irradiated die", pictured above with the Freesboro module.
    In any case, I think any group could improve on some of the crunchiness. *To save time I snapped a photos of the powers for my giant (origin 1) hawkoid (origin 2) powers on my smartphone rather than write them all out in a mad dash (which I tried and ended up not being able to read my own scribbles). It was a handy workaround for looking up powers on the fly.
    Zeke's favorite tactic was to "deliver the mail" using Brickbat.
    Zeke was careful not to use the shriek too often since his buddies were often too close to enemies in combat.
    If you've got any curiosity in checking out a 4E game, GW would be a great place to start. I'll reiterate what I've read from others that I can see it as a nice interim game between regular campaign sessions. Just be sure to roll up plenty of PCs beforehand--hell, that's half the fun!

    A list of the booster cards Alpha (mutation) and Omega (technology)
    Overviews of origins and character generation
    Overview of gear