Saturday, 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon


After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Disney acquires 20th Century Fox

Disney has agreed to buy out 20th Century Fox from its parent company, 21st Century Fox (formerly News International), and chief executive Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch has been looking to offload 20th Century Fox to focus instead on his sports and news brands in the United States.

The deal is one of the largest entertainment mergers in history, worth over $68 billion (once debts are taken into account). It sees Disney take control of the vast back catalogue, current film slate and future greenlit film projects from Fox and numerous (but not all) TV properties. These include franchises ranging from Alien, Planet of the Apes and Avatar to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Simpsons.

Particularly of value to Disney will be the re-merging of properties. As a result of this merger, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (aka “the original one”) is now reunited with the rest of the Star Wars franchise for perpetuity. Previously Fox had permanent ownership of the film (in a deal done with George Lucas to finance budget overruns on The Empire Strikes Back in 1979). More interesting is that the deal also reunites all the characters licensed by Marvel to 20th Century Fox back in the late 1990s, including the X-Men and Deadpool franchises and the upcoming X-Force and Dark Phoenix movies. It also gives Disney distribution rights to the Fantastic Four franchise, although production rights remain with a third party (although without Disney’s cooperation they wouldn’t be able to release any more movies, so this is likely not a major issue). Whether the X-Men and Fantastic Four characters will now be integrated into the upcoming Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (with rumours circling that Phase Four will be a clean-slate reboot, which needs to be confirmed) remains to be seen, but it’s known that Marvel Studios exec Kevin Feige has been particularly eager to get his hands on the X-Men and Fantastic Four roster of villains.

One of the big winners out of this will be Disney’s new streaming service, planned to launch in 2019. This streaming service will now, presumably, have access to 20th Century Fox’s entire back-library of films and TV shows (at least as those licenses with other distributors such Netflix and Amazon expire). In addition, Disney will acquire Fox’s share in online streaming service Hulu, giving them control over the operation. It may even be that Hulu will be transformed into the new Disney streaming service (which will likely have a Disney-branded children’s stream and differently-branded adult service), allowing Disney to build on a successful base rather than starting everything from scratch. Disney’s animation wing will also be strengthened by the addition of The Simpsons, as well as getting an adult-oriented slew of animation programming including Family Guy and Archer.

The deal includes not just 20th Century Fox but also the FX Network Group, National Geographic and Fox’s stake in Sky TV in the UK. Fox’s total buy-out of Sky is more likely to succeed now, with Disney seen as a less controversial choice by the UK government. The Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox Television Studios, the Fox News Channel, the Fox Business Network and Fox Sports are excluded and will form their own new, independent company.

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi

The Resistance has destroyed Starkiller Base but has failed to prevent the First Order from toppling the Republic. The new rebels are now on the run. On a distant planet Rey has found Luke Skywalker and asks for his help for the Resistance and for herself, as her Force powers are growing exponentially. But Luke has been broken and demoralised by the betrayal of Kylo Ren. Rey and the Resistance both face their lowest ebb as Supreme Leader Snoke himself arrives to oversee the final battle...but there is still the possibility of hope.

Back in 2015, The Force Awakens had the unenviable task of resurrecting a Star Wars franchise that had been let down by three disappointing prequel movies. It succeeded mainly by creating and developing an intriguing new cast of characters, all played by great young actors, whilst furthering the themes of the Force, heroism and self-sacrifice and adding an interesting major new theme of redemption in the shape of Adam Driver's new villain, Kylo Ren. Unfortunately, the film was also highly derivative of what came before, with a new Death Star and a few too many nods at the previous Star Wars movies that were less homages and more re-stagings. Still, it was fun, pacy and energetic and this overwhelmed many of the movie's weaker moments.

The Last Jedi is, fortunately, not as derivative of The Empire Strikes Back as its forebear was of A New Hope, although there are some similarities. It has a similar underlying structure - our Force novice hero (or heroine, in this case) is off training up as a Jedi whilst our other characters are on the run from the Empire - but these plots go in very unexpected directions. A battered, post-traumatic Luke is reluctant to train Rey following his own failure with Kylo Ren and the movie delves deep into this relationship and backstory, as well as expanding on Ren's fascination with Rey and Snoke's desire to train Ren as his heir apparent. This dynamic is compelling, fantastically well-acted (Driver and Daisy Ridley holding their own against a never-better Mark Hamill and another astonishing digital performance from Andy Serkis) and takes several turns which are surprising, refreshing and fascinating. We're light-years from the simplistic "corruption of Anakin" story from the prequels here, and we get several outstanding lightsabre battles along the way.

This is handy, because of the rest of the film is a little bit more variable in quality. It's good to see Finn (John Boyega) back on his feet and he's soon off on a solo adventure with Resistance mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who is a breath of fresh air in the franchise. Their story is fun and - rather unexpectedly - taps into weighty issues like capitalist exploitation of disenfranchised workers (although we still don't get any discussion of why enslaving sentient droids is okay). Benicio Del Toro shows up and does vaguely Benicio Del Toro things before abruptly disappearing from the narrative. It's all okay and vaguely amusing but at the end of the movie you realise that Finn's entire story could have been jettisoned from the film without losing anything (other than a couple of dozen minutes from the film's overlong running time) other than a few discussions about the value of friendship and family which, whilst nice, aren't exactly revelatory.

The biggest problem lies in the movie's core chase sequence, where the First Order fleet relentlessly hunts down the last remaining Resistance warship. This creates a rather major plot hole where the storyline could have been resolved at any moment by a couple of the First Order ships making a micro-hyperspace jump ahead of the Resistance and cutting them off, which they don't do because...well, it's never explained. Later on the Resistance use a hyperspace manoeuvre in battle which is, as established in the previous movies, physically impossible (and, if it was possible to do it by tweaking a ship's drives somehow, it would have been used frequently before). Given that this storyline forms a large chunk of the movie's running time and is where Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs) and General Leia (Carrie Fisher), along with Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), are hanging out, along with a welcome expanded role for Lt. Connix (Billie Lourd, Fisher's daughter), it's quite a big issue for established Star Wars fans who know the background and canon quite well. Casual viewers likely won't care.

The film brings all the characters back together for a surprisingly twisty climax, complete with at least two stand-out musical homages to the original trilogy and some moments of real humour. Much has been made of the "surprises" in the movie and there are a few things that definitely don't go the way people will be expecting. But ultimately this is Star Wars and there are limits to Lucasfilm's conceptual boldness, even if they do press up against them from time to time.

The Last Jedi (***½) is, once again, energetic, well-directed and has some great dialogue and fantastic performances. Also once again, the central storyline is more than a little stupid and there are plot holes big enough to pilot Supreme Leader Snoke's 60km-wide Super Duper Star Destroyer through, which grate a little bit more this time around (since I think Rian Johnson is a better writer and director than Abrams, but he doesn't knock it out of the park here). The best Star Wars movie since Empire? No. The best once since Rogue One, and that's still entertaining enough for now. But Episode IX will really need to up its game. The film is on general release now.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Get some free games! For free!

Two of the online video game stores are giving away free games this week to entice people to look at their December sales.

Ubiplay has put up Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag for free for this week. This nautical take on the Assassin's Creed franchise is often cited as the best game in the series and an easy one to start off with.

GoG also has Grim Fandango Remastered up for free for this week. Originally released in 1998 by LucasArts, Grim Fandango is comfortably one of the best video games and certainly one of the best adventure games of all time. The remastered edition adds a revamped and much-improved mouse control system and enhanced graphics.

The Planet Factory by Elizabeth Tasker

Up to the early 1990s, the discussion of how life is formed and how many habitable planets there may be in our galaxy was massively restricted by us having only one star system - our own - and only eight planets and two dwarf planets to study. In the last quarter of a century, that has radically changed. 3,710 confirmed planets circling other stars have been discovered, with an additional 15,000 suspected to exist and awaiting verification. We have gone from having a handful of planets to look at to veritably drowning in them, with more discovered almost every month.

The key question is can any of these planets harbour life, even intelligent life, and if they do how can we find them? And how do you build a planet and a solar system anyway?

Astrophysicist Elizabeth Tasker tackles a large number of questions in her book. It looks at how the Earth was formed and the role played by the rest of the Solar system in its creation. This involves a detailed look at the phenomenon which, highly unusually, resulted in our gas giants ending up in quite distant orbits from the Sun (most gas giants end up orbiting their stars at a mere fraction of the orbit of Mercury, becoming so-called "hot Jupiters"), allowing the Earth to form unmolested in the inner Solar system. The book also looks at how water is formed and gets deposited on planets, and the degree to which water is essential for life or if other substances could be used.

The book also explores several dozen of the more exotic exoplanets, including worlds which orbit pulsars and are fried in their radiation beams on a regular basis; worlds covered in thick tar and others where diamonds literally rain out of the sky. There are water worlds with oceans thousands of kilometres deep and frozen iceballs which have been catapulted out of their parent systems and now wander on their own between the stars. These descriptions are vivid and show how chemistry and physics can combine to create worlds far stranger than any science fiction has come up with.

The book is approachable, with occasional dips into more complex discussions of chemistry and orbital resonances, but for the most part the book is perfectly readable for the layman. There's a nice line of humour in the book and the use of pop culture references to explain how certain planets work (a chapter on exomoons compares them to the Forest Moon of Endor from Star Wars, for example, and the one on rogue planets briefly invokes the Transformers homeworld of Cybertron which was likewise blasted out of its orbit around its home star).

The book also explains the techniques used for detecting exoplanets and how they are being refined further to look for planets the size of the Earth, or smaller, and how we may be able to pick up the telltale signs of life through atmospheric conditions.

One of the things I liked most about the book was its upbeat tone. Given that exoplanets seem to have added a whole load of extra steps to the conditions necessary to have life, it would have been easy to have concluded that if life is out there, it's even rarer than we thought and would be very difficult to find. However, Tasker instead keeps showing how even the craziest worlds may still be able to give rise to (at least) bacteriological or microbial life. In one of the most positive chapters, she even looks at the problems Earth has had in developing life - its frequent ice ages as the result of Milankovitch cycles caused by the gravitational tugs on its orbit by other planets, its occasional collision with large asteroids - and postulates planets that wouldn't have these problems and where life and even intelligent life could develop much more quickly than on Earth.

The Planet Factory (****½) is a fast-paced and readable non-fiction book which expands on current science, explains planet formation theories in an approachable way and is highly informative. It's also a good watch of catching up on what is a very rapidly-evolving field. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Monday, 11 December 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 17-18

C17: War Without End, Part 2
Airdates: 20 May 1996 (US), 11 August 1996 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Michael Laurence Vejar
Cast: Ambassador Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare), Zathras (Tim Choate), Major Krantz (Kent Broadhurst), Babylon 4 Executive Officer (Bruce Morrow), Centauri Guard (Kevin Fry), B4 Tech (Eddie Mui), Voice (Melissa Gilbert – uncredited)

Date: Parts of this episode take place in 2254, late 2258 (coinciding with the time period of episode A20), January 2278 and approximately one thousand years in the past.

Plot:    On the Centauri Prime of the future a stunned Sheridan tries to find out what’s going on. Londo tells him that it is seventeen years since Sheridan started his great crusade against the Shadows and, although he defeated them, he failed to eliminate their allies, who have apparently devastated Centauri Prime in retribution for their defeat. Londo tells Sheridan he will be executed for his crimes and is returned to his cell. He is soon joined by an aged Delenn, who tell him that their son is safe and that she loves him. They are brought before Londo again, but Londo is now inebriated by drink. He tells them that drink is the only thing that can keep "it" asleep and shows them a strange parasitic alien creature attached to his shoulder, his "Keeper" as he calls it. He tells them he has arranged for them to escape on a Centauri shuttle, telling them that in return for sparing them he wants their forces to liberate Centauri Prime from its conquerors. They agree and depart. After they have gone G’Kar, missing an eye, enters and Londo tells him that if his Keeper awakens it will know what Londo has done and will stop Delenn and Sheridan from escaping. G’Kar agrees to put Londo out of his misery and starts strangling him, but the Keeper awakens and Londo tries to fight back. Later, Vir enters, finds the two corpses, and reaches for the Emperor’s circlet. Outside, Sheridan is pulled back to his own time and Delenn urges him not to go Z’ha’dum.

Meanwhile, back in 2254 Sinclair and the others board Babylon 4 and fake a hull breach in one section, arranging for the whole area to be sealed off. They begin preparing to send Babylon 4 through time and Sheridan reappears. Zathras has fixed his time stabiliser to some degree using extra power from a spacesuit’s battery, but it is still not fully functional. Sheridan and Sinclair enter Babylon 4’s fusion reactor and begin placing the equipment needed to begin the time jump, but a power spike causes the system to overload and move the station forwards in time. Zathras stops it, but the station has moved forwards in time by some four years, to 2258. Soon ships from Babylon 5 approach and events unfold as they did before (in episode A20). Sheridan vanishes again due to the time malfunction but reappears. During the confusion Delenn has a flash-forward similar to the one experienced by Sinclair and Garibaldi two years ago: she is in Sheridan’s quarters, watching him sleep. The door opens and a woman says, “Hello?”, shocking Delenn. She wakes up again, confused, on B4. Delenn swaps her time stabiliser for Sheridan’s and dons his spacesuit as well. Zathras is captured by B4 Security, meets with the past Garibaldi and Sinclair, and they see a spacesuited figure (Delenn) appear outside, who Zathras claims is "The One". Zathras gives Delenn the fixed time stabiliser to stop her leaping around in time and Zathras encourages the past crew to abandon ship as a new time jump begins. The B4 crew and their rescuers abandon the station and return to Babylon 5, just before Babylon 4 vanishes.

The crew reconvene in B4 C&C. Sinclair has aged some 20 years, apparently due to being exposed to the time field for a second time and not having a time stabiliser the first time he was exposed to it (in A20). He guesses that the closer he moves to his own time he will get older and older before dying, which is why he didn't want Garibaldi along on the trip. He volunteers to take Babylon 4 personally back in time to a thousand years in the past and Zathras agrees to go with him. Zathras tells Sinclair that the One is actually three people, the One who was, is and will be. He says that Sinclair is the One Who Was, Delenn is the One Who Is and that Sheridan is the One Who Will Be. The remainder of the crew abandon ship and return to the present.

The White Star reappears in 2260 and heads back to Babylon 5. Draal collapses and seals the time distortion in Sector 14 once and for all. Along the way Delenn explains some of what has transpired. She tells them that if B4 had appeared with a human on board, her people would never have accepted it. She also tells them that the triluminaries - the devices used by the Minbari Grey Council and by Delenn to perform her transformation - originated on Epsilon III. Marcus, shocked, recalls that the Minbari histories claim that Valen was a "Minbari not born of Minbari". Delenn tells Sheridan that her transformation was to close a door opened 1,000 years ago, the door that allowed Minbari souls to be born in human bodies...

1,000 years into the past, Babylon 4 appears. Several Minbari battleships detect its appearance and arrive to investigate, to find that two Vorlon transports are already on hand. On board they are greeted by a Minbari who says his name is Valen and grants them Babylon 4 as a place to be used against the Shadows, but there is much work to do...


Sunday, 10 December 2017

THE WITCHER TV show gets a showrunner

Netflix have tapped Lauren Schmidt Hissrich to helm their television adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher books.

Hissrich was a writer and co-executive producer on Netflix's Jessica Jones, Daredevil and The Defenders, as well as a producer on Power and a staff writer on The West Wing. This continues Netflix's tradition of promoting from within and giving writers and producers on their shows a shot at running their own projects later on.

The Witcher books chart the adventures on Geralt of Rivia, a monster-hunter who initially spends his time hunting and fighting monsters in the wilderness. Despite being a loner, he gradually attracts a number of allies, including the sorceresses Yennefer and Triss, the enigmatic young woman Ciri, the bard Dandelion and the dwarf Zoltan.

It is unknown what short stories and books the TV show will adapt, or if they will have anything to do with the highly successful Witcher trilogy of video games, since some of the game personnel will be working on the TV show in the effects department.

The Witcher is not expected to debut on Netflix until mid-to-late 2019 at the earliest.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 15-16

C15: Interludes and Examinations
Airdates: 6 May 1996 (US), 28 July 1996 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Jésus Treviño
Cast: Dr. Lillian Hobbs (Jennifer Balgobin), David Sheridan (Rance Howard), Morden (Ed Wasser), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain & Jeffrey Willerth – uncredited), Vendor (Jan Rabson), Brakiri Ambassador (Jonathan Chapman), Ranger (Glenn Martin), Medtech (Doug Tompos), Tech (Mark Ciglar)

Date: 3 August 2260.

Plot:    Ten days have begun since the Shadows launched their assault on the Brakiri and other worlds. The attacks are random, senseless and unpredictable. Unfortunately, the League worlds are unable to stand up to the Shadow vessels, but on the other hand the Shadows have not yet attacked their homeworlds. Sheridan calls a meeting with the Brakiri and Gaim ambassadors, since the Brakiri have been hardest hit and the Gaim are their nearest neighbours. The Gaim have not yet been attacked and refuse to draw attention to themselves by aiding the Brakiri. After some negotiation, the Gaim agree to send ships to help the Brakiri, but only if Sheridan demonstrates they actually stand a chance against the Shadows by providing them with a victory.

Morden arrives on the station in secret, bribing a guard to circumvent Customs. He confronts Londo, annoyed that Londo has somehow arranged for all contact between Morden and the Centauri Royal Court to be cut off. Londo refuses to heed Morden’s threats or warnings and walks off, telling Morden that he cannot do anything more to him than has already been done. Morden notices that Vir is quite busy arranging something for Londo and learns that Londo’s one-time lover, Adira Tyree, is returning to the station after two and a half years. Morden begins plotting something...

Dr. Franklin loses his temper during an operation and begins to crack up under the stress. Garibaldi and Franklin’s assistant, Dr. Hobbs, both notice this. Franklin is forced to admit he has become addicted to stims and takes a leave of absence from Medlab until he can sort himself out.

Sheridan goes to see Ambassador Kosh and tells him that the War Council they have established is demanding to see a victory over the Shadows, to see that they are not invulnerable, before committing themselves to open warfare against them. Sheridan requests that the Vorlons intercept and destroy a Shadow taskforce, but Kosh refuses. It is not yet time for the Vorlons to enter the fray. Sheridan becomes annoyed, telling Kosh that he and Delenn have put themselves, their careers and their lives on the line because the Vorlons have told them to and now the Vorlons are needed they refuse to get involved? Kosh becomes incensed and comes close to killing Sheridan before admitting he may be right. He warns him that in return for this favour he will not be able to help Sheridan if and when he goes to Z’ha’dum.

A large number of Shadow warships jump into a Brakiri system and go on the rampage. However, a Vorlon fleet appears, led by a huge mothership cruiser. The Shadows, taken completely by surprise, are destroyed and the Vorlons suffer no losses. The League worlds are heartened and sign a formal treaty of alliance with each other, the Minbari, the Narn rebels and Babylon 5. Sheridan’s hope of uniting the lesser worlds against the Shadows seems to be on the verge of actually happening. However, Morden learns of these events and breaks into Kosh’s quarters. His two Shadow associates materialise and attack the Vorlon. Sheridan has an odd dream in which his dad appears and tells him he was too proud and too afraid to help him until it was necessary. A terrific blast of light fills the station and Sheridan discovers that Kosh is dead, murdered by the Shadows in retribution for the Vorlons involving themselves in the war. The Vorlon homeworld sends word that a replacement is on the way and instructs them to place Kosh’s belongings in his ship. The ship then departs the station and dives head-first into the Epsilon Eridani star.

Londo is shocked to discover that Adira is dead, poisoned on the transport before it docks with Babylon 5. He goes to Morden and learns that, just before they broke off relations, Refa expressed his anger and hatred of Londo to Morden for poisoning him and wanted to even the score. Londo demands Morden’s help in getting even, in return for re-opening the doors on Centauri Prime he closed, and Morden agrees.


Thursday, 7 December 2017

Taika Waititi in line for STAR WARS job

Star Wars franchise boss Kathleen Kennedy has said that she is interested in hiring Taika Waititi to direct a future instalment of the space opera franchise. Waititi has delivered a major, successful blockbuster for Marvel in the shape of Thor: Ragnarok and it's no surprise that Lucasfilm (also owned by Marvel's owners, Disney) are interested in seeing if they can sign him up as well.

However, it seems an odd match. Waititi has a laidback, humorous and improvisational style, noting that many of the funniest moments on Ragnarok emerged out of the cast and crew just playing around on-set. This is similar to the approach adopted by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord on the set of Star Wars: Solo, which so horrified Kennedy that she fired them and drafted in Ron Howard to finish the picture. Waititi himself has seemed dubious about tackling the franchise, noting it's less whacky and is less tolerant of changes in tone than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He even said, "Lolz, I like to complete my films. I'd be fired within a week."

Still, it'd be interesting to see what Waititi could do with the franchise, especially one that can occasionally be a bit too Poe-faced for its own good at times.

Netflix developing John Scalzi's OLD MAN'S WAR as a movie

Netflix have announced that they are developing an original movie based on John Scalzi's 2005 novel Old Man's War.

The book, which riffs off both Joe Haldeman's The Forever War and Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, focuses on an old man who agrees to fight on the front lines in a war against an alien species in return for being given a younger body. The novel has been optioned previously, with some thought in turning it into a movie or a TV series. The novel has five sequels: The Ghost Brigades (2006), The Last Colony (2007), Zoe's Tale (2008), The Human Division (2013) and The End of All Things (2015), ensuring a lengthy franchise if the first movie is a success.