Friday, 18 September 2020

Tatiana Maslany cast as She-Hulk in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Tatiana Maslany, the Canadian Emmy-award winning star of the excellent SF clone drama Orphan Black, has been cast in the role of Jennifer Walters, better-known as She-Hulk. She will play the role in a Disney+ live-action series alongside Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner.

Jennifer Walters debuted in The Savage She-Hulk #1, published in 1980. Walters, a lawyer by trade is the cousin of Bruce Banner, the Incredible Hulk, and inherits his powers after being given an emergency blood transfusion by him after an accident. She-Hulk is notable for retaining much of her human levels of intelligence and control even after "hulking out". The character has been a member of the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the Defenders and SHIELD at different times and her legal expertise has proven useful when various fellow heroes have gotten in trouble with the law.

She-Hulk is the latest in a series of Marvel Cinematic Universe TV series which will air on Disney+. It will be part of the second batch of MCU TV shows, following on from the first batch consisting of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, Loki and What If...? Other shows in the second wave will include Hawkeye. Ms. Marvel and Moon Knight. She-Hulk is expected to premiere in 2022.

RIP Terry Goodkind

According to his official Facebook page, the fantasy author Terry Goodkind passed away yesterday at the age of 72.

Born in Nebraska in 1948, Goodkind had little initial interest in writing due to dyslexia, with which he had little support through education. He instead worked as a woodworker, artist and house-builder. It was whilst building his own house on an island off the coast in Maine in 1993 that he conceived of an idea for a fantasy novel which became Wizards' First Rule, the first volume in The Sword of Truth series. The book was published in 1994 by Tor Books with a huge marketing push, as they believed it could replicate the success of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time sequence.

The Sword of Truth never achieved either the critical or commercial success of The Wheel of Time, but it did become Tor's second-biggest-selling series of the late 1990s. The series concluded in 2007 after eleven volumes, having sold over 25 million copies. Goodkind attempted to shift gears to write a contemporary fantasy, The Law of Nines, for a different publisher but the novel did poorly and plans for further books in the series were shelved. Goodkind returned to the Sword of Truth world to pen a series of prequel and sequel novels. In total Goodkind published twenty-two novels in his lifetime.

The Sword of Truth was adapted for television by Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert. Renamed Legend of the Seeker, two seasons of the show were produced in 2008-10.

Goodkind was a controversial figure in the fantasy field, a form of notoriety he seems to have enjoyed. He was an avid follower of Objectivism and its creator Ayn Rand, whom he frequently named as his favourite author. He is the biggest-selling and most popular Objectivist author since Rand herself, and his novels frequently featured lengthy asides where the characters debated Objectivist philosophy. Goodkind also didn't hide his political preferences in his books, in one novel casting thinly-veiled caricatures of Hilary and Bill Clinton as the main villains and showing disdain for pacifists and peace protesters. Several of his novels also featured non-sequitur essay-length discussions of the evils of socialism and communism.

His books initially attracted praise for their action and focus, but this rapidly died away as the series took on a distinctly repetitive and lecturing tone. Goodkind was dismissive of reviewers and, oddly, the entire SFF genre, repeatedly stating that his books were not fantasy because they dealt with "important human themes" and he regarded them as philosophical works. Goodkind's conception of the novels as weighty thematic tomes and the more general reader conception of them as ultraviolent and decidedly kinky pulp fiction were at such variance that it became a source of considerable humour on some fantasy websites; something Goodkind seems to have, oddly, encouraged, perhaps believing there was no such thing as bad publicity.

Goodkind did also experience more negative forms of controversy: he posted a medical report of his own health widely interpreted as mocking a dying Robert Jordan at the time (Jordan profoundly disliked Goodkind and his books, considering them to be sailing a bit too close to the wind of his own work), and in 2018 publicly mocked the cover art produced for one of his novels (leading to a rare apology). He wasn't always combative in his dealings with other authors, and occasionally praised other works of fantasy, noting that he was fan of the Game of Thrones TV series.

Outside of his writing, Goodkind was an amateur racing driver and continued artistic pursuits outside of his work. No cause of death was given. He is survived by his wife, Jeri.

It's fair to say that Terry Goodkind was a controversial figure in the SFF field but one who did bring a different perspective to the genre and seemed to genuinely relish his notoriety.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Tad Williams breaks own record to deliver the longest epic fantasy novel of all time (before editing)

Tad Williams has broken his own record to deliver the longest epic fantasy novel of all time, at least before the editing process is completed.

Williams' 1993 novel To Green Angel Tower, the concluding volume of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, is 520,000 words in length, or around 60,000 words longer than even the complete Lord of the Rings. In fact, the only even vaguely SFF novels longer than To Green Angel Tower are firmly in other subgenres: Varney the Vampire, Atlas Shrugged, Jerusalem and Infinite Jest. To Green Angel Tower is as long as the first two books in the trilogy (The Dragonbone Chair and Stone of Farewell) combined and is often only available in two volumes.

Fittingly, Williams' new, record-breaking novel is the concluding volume to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn's sequel trilogy, The Last King of Osten Ard. The Navigator's Children currently clocks in at "bigger" than To Green Angel Tower.

The novel is being "prodigiously cut" and may end up coming in shorter than the published To Green Angel Tower, but whether that happens or not remains to be seen.

The Navigator's Children is currently tentatively scheduled for release in late 2021, and will be preceded by a short novel called Brothers of the Wind (previously known as The Shadow of Things to Come), which focuses on the backstory of the Storm King, Ineluki, and his brother Hakatri.

CORRECTION: It's been noted that Tad has completed the first draft of The Navigator's Children and is now revising, but has not delivered it to DAW as yet.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

FINAL FANTASY XVI surprised announced by Square for 2021

Square have surprise-announced Final Fantasy XVI, the latest game in the long-running Japanese RPG series.

Square released Final Fantasy XV in 2016 to a mostly positive reception, so the fact they are making a new game shouldn't be too surprising. However, in the interim this year they released the first part of the Final Fantasy VII Remake project, leading some to believe that XVI wouldn't appear until after the entire release was complete. Instead, it appears that Square have leveraged their enormous manpower to get FFXVI in production at the same time.

Final Fantasy XVI looks like a back-to-basics approach, with a focus on magical crystals and a medieval world and setting rather than the blend of SF and fantasy, technology and magic that has informed the last several games in the series. The game is due for release in 2021 on PlayStation 5 and PC.

LEVIATHAN FALLS will be the final book of THE EXPANSE

Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham - the two halves of the gestalt author-entity known as James S.A. Corey - have confirmed that the ninth and final volume of The Expanse will hit bookshelves in 2021, ten years after the release of the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes. Fittingly, the last book will be called Leviathan Falls.

The other books in the series are Caliban's War (2012), Abaddon's Gate (2013), Cibola Burn (2014), Nemesis Games (2015), Babylon's Ashes (2016), Persepolis Rising (2017) and Tiamat's Wrath (2019). A series of short stories and novellas has also accompanied the main series. A further novella will be released alongside Leviathan Falls, with plans for a collection of all the novellas and short stories after the main series wraps. Their next project will be a trilogy, possibly a more distant-future, epic story in the vein of Dune.

In 2015 the books were adapted as a television series, The Expanse, initially on SyFy but now on Amazon Prime. The fifth season of the TV show, which wrapped production back in February, is expected to hit screens before the end of the year.

Warner Brothers turn down BABYLON 5 model starship collection

This broke in January, so isn't new news, but had flown under my radar until now. Back in January, the team at Eaglemoss who handle their starship model collections - Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Aliens and others - confirmed that they had been in communications with Warner Brothers about starting a Babylon 5 collection, only to be rebuffed.

Apparently Warner Brothers' response was that Babylon 5 is currently an inactive franchise. However, this doesn't mean that they're not interested in generating licences, it's just that to do so Warners would have to assemble a licencing team for the property and those people would have to know about the show so as to be able to exert quality control over any tie-in products. This might not be worth it for one project which had no guarantee of long-term success (the head of Eaglemoss expands on this in the episode "Ship Shape" here at 1 hour and 1 minute).

The same excuse was used some years ago when Big Finish Audio, who make Doctor Who and Blake's 7 audio dramas, approached Warner Brothers to make full-cast audio plays with some of the original actors from Babylon 5 and were turned down. 

Understandable from a business perspective, but disappointing. Eaglemoss's models are pretty good value for money and reasonably good in quality; not as great as the best model kits, of course, but then you're paying triple the price and you have to assemble and paint them yourselves. The currently have 312 ships in their Star Trek collection, spanning all eras of the show (from The Original Series through Picard, with Lower Decks on the horizon and even catering for things like ships from Star Trek Online). They currently have 20 models in their Battlestar Galactica collection, spanning both the original 1978 show and the 2003-09 reboot (note that their BSG collection has a buy one, get one half-price currently going on for today only), with more planned, despite a relatively small number of ships being available in that franchise. They've even managed to put together ten ships to form an Aliens/Predator collection, with more figurines and statues available.

Babylon 5 has many dozens of ships that could make it into such a collection, including the titular Babylon 5 station, the Starfury fighter and capital ships such as the Omega-class destroyer, Sharlin-class warcruiser and Primus-class battlecruiser. Babylon 5 models have been available in the past, such as a Starfury fighter and a B5 station released by Revell in the late 1990s and a line of metal miniatures from the Babylon 5 Wars game from Agents of Gaming and Mongoose Publishing's A Call to Arms miniatures wargame in the early 2000s. There was also a line of small Micro Machines toys released in the late 1990s. However, based on the quality of their Star Trek and BSG lines, an Eaglemoss line would be superior in size and quality.

Warner Brothers have continued to treat Babylon 5 in a lukewarm fashion recently, resisting calls to release an upscaled version of the show for Blu-Ray, whilst sending mixed messages on the chances of a reboot or more comprehensive remaster. Babylon 5 is a relatively obscure property compared to Star Trek or Star Wars, but it has made WB over half a billion dollars in profit since its inception in 1993, which is nothing to sneeze at, and the show retains a loyal fanbase who'd snap up such a collection eagerly.

Monday, 14 September 2020

New STAR WARS short film focuses on an X-wing vs. TIE interceptor duel

Lucasfilm and Electronic Arts have joined forces to release Hunted, a seven-minute short film focusing on a dogfight between an X-wing and TIE interceptor duel in the months after the Battle of Endor.

The short film, which incorporates CG assets developed for the film Rogue One, is part of the marketing build-up for the release of Star Wars: Squadrons, a new starfighter-focused video game for PC, X-Box One and PlayStation 4. A spiritual successor to the classic X-Wing line of 1990s video games (X-Wing, TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance), Squadrons pitches two rival squadrons in the Galactic Civil War against one another. The game includes singleplayer campaigns for each faction (although EA remain coy about how long they are) and a number of multiplayer modes.

The film focuses on Varko Grey, one of the ace Imperial pilots who appears in the game. Presumably, we may seen another film about the New Republic side of the conflict, if not several more, in the lead-up to the game's release.

Lucasfilm's direct involvement in the short is interesting. X-wings and TIE fighters are iconic parts of the franchise, of course, and as well as the 1990s video games there was a best-selling novel line by Michael J. Stackpole and Aaron Allston focusing on the pilots. The X-Wing miniatures game from Fantasy Flight has also been hugely successful and recently entered a second edition. Lucasfilm could do worse than to consider a live-action show based around pilots on one or both sides of the conflict. 

Star Wars: Squadrons will be released on 2 October this year.

Writer of THE WATCH forgets to thank Sir Terry Pratchett as production wraps

The writer of The Watch, BBC America's increasingly controversial "loose adaptation" of Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, has apparently forgotten about the late author and his estate whilst extending his thanks to people involved in the making of the television series. In fact, the writer fails to mention the Discworld book series, or that his TV show is based on novels, at all. He instead names himself as the "creator" of the story in a remarkable display of hubris.

The apparent snub was picked up on by Sir Terry's daughter and literary executor Rhianna Pratchett on Twitter. Needless to say, the response from the enormous, global Discworld fandom has not been kind.

Sir Terry Pratchett wrote 41 Discworld novels between 1983 and his premature death from early-onset Alzheimer's in 2015. At the time of his death, the Discworld novels had sold almost 90 million copies, making it the joint best-selling post-Tolkien secondary world fantasy series (with near sales parity with Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire). The series is a cultural institution in the UK, where Pratchett was a perennial bestseller. Sir Terry was also lauded for his work for charities and bringing greater awareness of issues such as the endangerment of orangutan populations and Alzheimer's research. He was one of the few writers in the "national treasure" category. He also has a growing fanbase in the United States (who were late but increasingly enthusiastic attendees of the Pratchett party).

Six of the Discworld novels have been adapted for the screen: Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music were adapted to animation by Cosgrove Hall in 1997, whilst Sky adapted HogfatherThe Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic and Going Postal between 2006 and 2010. Development of The Watch began in 2011, with the original idea being to develop a TV-focused sequel to the Discworld novels set in the city of Ankh-Morpork and revolving around the City Watch (starting with Guards! Guards!), rather than adapting the books directly. This version of the series was in development with the BBC for several years before the BBC divested it to BBC America around the time of Sir Terry's death.

BBC America hired a new writer (Simon Allen, best known for The Musketeers) threw out all the work that had been done already, apparently chose not to involve Sir Terry's family (including his daughter, Rhianna, a talented writer in her own right who had been closely involved in the prior project) and completely reconceptualised the project, including throwing out major characters, turning the setting into a "cyberpunk" city (nonsensically; I think they meant steampunk) and "sexing up" other characters by making them younger, thinner and better-looking. The Pratchett fanbase responded negatively to the early publicity images of the show and this discontent grew as it became clear that the Pratchett Estate was unhappy with how things had gone.

Snubbing the creator and writer of the original stories in this manner will likely increase the discontent and negative publicity the show has engendered so far.

The Watch is currently scheduled to air on BBC America in January 2021. A UK broadcaster has not yet been announced.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Streams of Silver by R.A. Salvatore

Having successfully saved Icewind Dale from the invading army of the sorcerer Akar Kessell - albeit at a high cost - Bruenor Battlehammer, Drizzt Do'Urden, Wulfgar and Regis embark on a new quest. This time their goal is Mithril Hall, the long-lost homeland of Bruenor. Unfortunately, Bruenor was only a child when the hall fell and has no memory of its location. The companions set out for the cities of Luskan and Silverymoon, hoping they will find clues to the Hall's whereabouts. But danger stalks the party, for the assassin Artemis Entreri is on their tail, seeking the halfling Regis, whilst the mages of Luskan are anxious for news of the Crystal Shard and are determined to recover it.

Streams of Silver (1989) is the middle volume of the Icewind Dale Trilogy but mercifully escapes "middle book syndrome" by virtue of Salvatore not planning a trilogy in the first place. The Crystal Shard had to stand well enough alone so that if it bombed, readers would not be left on too much of a cliffhanger for a sequel that would never come. Fortunately, the book did very well and two sequels were commissioned, which are more tightly connected together (the "standalone+duology" school of trilogies, which has an honourable precedent in the original Star Wars trilogy).

Streams of Silver is a less tightly-plotted book than The Crystal Shard and less epic in terms of having large armies clashing, but it's much more of a traditional Dungeons & Dragons adventure. We have our party, who even now get a cool name (The Companions of the Hall™) and they have a quest which takes them across the Savage North of the Forgotten Realms. Many, many later books would also focus on this region but it's interesting to see it in a nascent state here with a lot of the worldbuilding still in a fairly embryonic stage, to the point where Salvatore overlooks the existence of the later very high-profile city of Neverwinter, which is amusing, and Alustriel Silverhand, one of the infamous Seven Sisters, only has two sisters at this juncture. We get a nicely varied story as well, taking in political-magical intrigue in the city of Luskan, a semi-comic interlude in the whimsical wizard hamlet of Longsaddle, a more desperate long-running battle across the troll-infested Evermoors, an angsty stay in the city of Silverymoon (a bastion of peace and enlightenment where Drizzt hopes for respite, only to be turned away because of his dark elven heritage) and a final descent into Mithril Hall, presumably thoroughly checked by TSR's legal team to stave off the J.R.R. Tolkien Estate suing them into the next universe.

An interesting parallel storyline emerges where the assassin Artemis Entreri is hot on our heroes' trail and assembles an "evil party" to bring parity to their encounter, complete with its own wizard, tracker, magical construct and a reluctant guide in the form of Catti-brie, Bruenor's adopted daughter now turned hostage. Given that Catti-brie was barely even in the first book, it's good to see her have some character development in this volume.

There's a lot more female characters in general, including several among the villains, which remedies one of the oddities of the first book. There's a fair bit of action, although not quite as breathlessly over-the-top as in the first book (sadly Drizzt and Wulfgar don't get to take out two dozen giants single-handed, which was stretching credibility just a bit), and Salvatore's writing calms down. No more excited exclamation marks after every other sentence! His prose can still veer towards the cheesy (especially whenever he decides Drizzt needs to be introspective and ponder on the unfairness of the world), but it's easily accessible and straightforward. There's still more enthusiasm than skill here, but it's surprising how much fun that can be.

The novel is very much still in the "Big Mac with extra fries" mode of fantasy literature, but it does make some clumsy nods towards engaging with a big theme when it comes to racism. Drizzt is a dark elf or drow, whose people were cursed and outcast from the rest of elven civilisation ten thousand years ago after betraying the other elven peoples during the Crown Wars. As a result, Drizzt encounters extreme hostility from pretty much everyone he meets. Later Forgotten Realms fiction would cast this event as a grand tragedy, with many tens of thousands of innocent and "good" dark elves punished for the crimes of their evil brethren, with many drow fighting for redemption under the banner of the goddess Eilistraee. At this early stage in the setting's history, though, the worldbuilding is more that all the drow are evil all the time (apart from a small number who are merely totally amoral instead), and Drizzt is the only exception in the whole world. On that basis it's hard to make Drizzt's story about racism work when virtually all the other drow we meet are inherently evil (shades of Dragon Age trying to make a story about bigotry against its mages because the run the risk of being overwhelmed by evil forces, despite the fact that almost every single mage we meet does go insane and get possessed by a demon at one point or another). Later books, which introduce more nuance to the setting, do deal with the issue more successfully.

Streams of Silver (***½) is a reasonable follow-up to The Crystal Shard. Salvatore has improved as a writer, although this is still very much at the enjoyable pulp end of the literary spectrum, and makes a couple of nods at larger themes around racism, homelands and belonging in this book, which are not altogether successful. He does deliver a readable, action-packed story which moves with verve through an interesting setting. With the success of this novel a bit more assured, there's a cliffhanger ending leading into the concluding book in the trilogy, The Halfling's Gem. Streams of Silver is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Hasbro resurrects the classic HERO QUEST board game

Hasbro has resurrected the long-defunct Hero Quest board game IP and is set to make a big announcement on the game on 22 September.

Hero Quest is a board game franchise that was created in 1989 by Milton Bradley Games in collaboration with Games Workshop, who provided the game's excellent miniatures. The game was set in a traditional fantasy world and saw up to four players create an adventuring party and enter a dungeon, which was laid out and prepared by another player serving as the Games Master. The game used a clever modular board design to provide for hundreds of possible dungeon layouts without spilling over an entire desk (something modern board games sometimes struggle with), and it was possible to play the dungeon adventures as stand-alone quests or sequentially to form a long-running campaign.

The original Hero Quest game was supported by a substantial number of expansions: Kellar's Keep, Return of the Witch Lord, Against the Ogre Horde, Wizards of Morcar, The Frozen Horror, The Mage of the Mirror and the Adventure Design Kit. The board game and expansions sold extremely well for three years, but the line ran out of steam in 1992 and was cancelled. Games Workshop published their own version of the game, Advanced Hero Quest, along with an expansion called Terror in the Dark, in 1991 but these were not as successful as the main line.

There were also two successful video games based on the board game, and MB and Games Workshop collaborated again on a science fiction iteration, Space Crusade (1990).

The Hero Quest design paradigm inspired many later games, including Warhammer Quest, Descent: Journeys in the Dark, Star Wars: Imperial AssaultZombiecide and Gloomhaven.

Unsurprisingly, the game's popularity (it sold hundreds of thousands of copies in its original run) has made it a prime target for restoration in the modern board games market. Gamezone Miniatures, a Spanish company with the licence to make the game in Spanish, tried to mount a reprint campaign in 2013 but fell afoul of legal concerns. A second attempt was made a few months later, but this was shot down by Moon Design Publications, publishers the HeroQuest pen-and-paper RPG. Chaosium took over the RPG and renamed it QuestWorlds at the start of 2020, which may have allowed others to stake a claim to the Hero Quest name (although this is unclear).

In July Restoration Games stepped in to trademark a project called Hero Quest: Legacies, although they noted at the time they did not plan to immediately develop a project.

Given that Hasbro have now set up a Twitter account and website, it appears that they have fully secured the Hero Quest name. They also have the design work IP from their prior acquisition of MB Games. They don't have the rights to use any of the Games Workshop-specific creatures or factions, so don't expect to see Fimirs or Chaos Warriors in the new game, but beyond that it looks like all systems go for a resurrection of a beloved, classic game. It'll be interesting to see what form it takes.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

A war is raging through all of time and space, spanning an infinite number of universes. Two great powers - the Commandant and the Garden - are clashing, their agents fighting one another in the stone age and a distant future of galaxy-spanning empires. Two agents, Red and Blue, clash again and again without ever exchanging a single word...until the day they decide to start writing letters.

This is How You Lose the Time War is a novella depicting a war fought through time between two implacable forces, each represented by one of their agents. It's a short book, at under 200 pages, and also an interesting one structurally, mixing traditional third-person narratives with the letters the two rival agents exchange on a regular basis. It's not quite an epistolary novella, more of a mix between it and more traditional narration, but the letters form an integral part of the story.

Although short, the novella covers a lot of ground. Multiple settings, from deep space in the far future to a sinking Atlantis to contemporary cities, are used as battlegrounds by the warring sides, and we see both the hard end of their fighting and meet the vast and almost staggering forces leading the wars. That said, there isn't a lot of exposition in the book. The reasons for the war - given that billions, if not trillions, of branching timelines exist for the two factions to coexist in - are never really given and it's unclear who is winning and losing (although both Red and Blue are prone to boasting of their side's achievements, at least early in their relationship). To be honest, it's not really important. More important is how alone and isolated both agents feel, and the only person they can relate to is their opposite number, doing the same thing and feeling the same feelings, just in a different cause.

The writing is poetic, with both agents keen to use creative language in their letters, which start off as verbal fencing matches but later become more flirtatious and intellectually challenging. There is humour in the book but also an air of bitter-sweetness. There's also tension: agents from the two forces are forbidden from communicating with one another out of fear of corruption, and it's not always clear it the agents are genuinely becoming enamoured of one another or each is trying to trap the other in an unexpected reversal. It feels a bit like Spy vs. Spy with added romantic tension, all set in the middle of Doctor Who's Time War.

This is How You Lose the Time War (****½) is short, focused and energetic, playful in tone and compelling in execution. Those who like books packed with exposition with every I dotted and every T crossed will probably be unhappy with the book's unapologetic lack of context; those who enjoy stories for their emotion and wordplay will be very satisfied. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

RIP Dame Diana Rigg

Famed British actress Dame Diana Rigg has sadly passed away at the age of 82.

Born in Doncaster, South Yorkshire in 1938, Rigg was raised by her parents in Bikaner, India. Returning to the UK, she trained as an actress and made her stage debut in 1957 and her TV debut two years later. In 1965 she was cast in the first of her three major screen roles on the fourth season of British spy series The Avengers, playing Emma Peel. Peel was an action heroine with a line in witticisms, engaged in a constant battle of comebacks and ambiguous tension with her co-star Patrick Macnee (playing John Steed). The Avengers was a huge success, one of the few UK shows which also aired in prime-time in the United States, but Rigg was unhappy with being paid only a quarter or so the amount of her co-star. For her second season she argued and won a big pay increase, but news of the dispute leaked to the press and Rigg was castigated in the tabloids for being greedy, despite still being paid less than Macnee. She quit the show after the fifth season ended in 1968.

Although the move was not seen as helpful for her career, it surprisingly paid off when she was cast in the next James Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), as Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo. She was the love interest for James Bond (George Lazenby in his sole outing in the role) but rather than a typical "Bond girl" she was presented as Bond's intellectual equal, winning his genuine respect. She and Bond marry, but in a memorable twist she is killed at the end of the film (this was actually material shot for the start of the next film, Diamonds Are Forever, but Lazenby quitting the role caused them them to be moved back into Majesty). Arguably Teresa has a greater impact on Bond's life than any of his other partners, and is the only one to be referred to (if often obliquely) in multiple other films.

Rigg continued to act on stage and on screen in both the UK and USA, and maintained a steady stream of appearances, including an acclaimed performances in Evil Under the Sun (1982). Between 1989 and 2003 she hosted the PBS television series Mystery! Always happy to play for laughs as well as in more serious roles, she appeared in The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and sent up both herself and co-star Daniel Radcliffe in Extras (2006).

In 2013 Rigg starred in Doctor Who, in the episode The Crimson Horror, alongside her daughter Rachael Stirling. Rigg then chalked up her final iconic role when she was cast as Lady Olenna Tyrell, the "Queen of Thorns," in the third season of Game of Thrones. She reprised the role across five seasons, becoming the nemesis of Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). Her character was killed off in the seventh season.

During her career she was nominated for three Tony Awards and seven Emmy Awards, winning one (in 1997 for her role in Rebecca). She also won two BAFTAs during her career.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

AMC confirms the end of THE WALKING DEAD

 AMC have announced that The Walking Dead will end in 2022 after airing its 11th season, which will be super-sized as a result, with 24 episodes as opposed to the usual run of 16 episodes.

The Walking Dead began airing in 2010 under the stewardship of Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile). Based on Robert Kirkman's successful comic book series - which ran for 193 issues between 2003 and 2019 - the series follows a band of survivors in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, which mostly takes place off-screen. The focal character is Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), a sheriff who is caught up in the apocalypse along with his family, best friend and some random other survivors. Over the course of the show, the initial band of survivors changes composition many times (until only two actors from Season 1 are still in the regular cast in Season 11) and it evolves from a desperate, isolated band to a group of community-leaders and nation-builders. The zombies, although everpresent, decline as the main threat in favour of other human communities of varying degrees of morality and corruption.

The show quickly became the biggest thing on television for several years, until being displaced by HBO's Game of Thrones. Recent seasons have seen sharp declines in viewing figures and critical appreciation, but with an ending in sight and a climax to build towards (which for various reasons will have to be very different to the ending in the comic book), it'll be interesting to see if the show can win back some sceptical, long-departed fans.

The show's first spin-off series, Fear the Walking Dead, is continuing to air on AMC and a second spin-off, The Walking Dead: World Beyond, set ten years after the apocalypse, is due to launch in the next couple of months. World Beyond is a limited series planned to run for just two seasons. AMC have also confirmed they will be launched a third spin-off, which will follow the adventures of Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride), the most popular characters from The Walking Dead and the last two Season 1 characters standing. A series of TV movies focusing on Rick Grimes is also in the planning stages.

AMC is also developing Tales of the Walking Dead, an anthology series set in the same universe involving both new and old characters from different points in the series timeline.

First full-length DUNE trailer released

After a great deal of build-up, the first full-length trailer for Denis Villeneuve's take on Frank Herbert's Dune is here.

The trailer was preceded by a presentation led by Stephen Cobert in which he talked to the main cast and director Denis Villeneuve.

The trailer itself, set to a version of Pink Floyd's "Eclipse", opens with Paul (Timothée Chalamet) discussing his prescient visions of Chani (Zendaya) and a great crusade that will burn across the galaxy. Paul discusses his fears with the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Chalotte Rampling), who forces him to endure a test of pain. We see Paul sparring with knives and personal shields with Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), whilst the Reverend Mother chides him that he will inherit too much power and he must learn how to rule others as well as himself, something his ancestors never learned. Paul notes that his father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) rules an entire planet (Caladan), but he is losing it in favour of a richer one (Arrakis, known as Dune). The Reverend Mother warns that he will lose that world as well, as Arrakis is a deathtrap. We see the confrontation between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, involving characters such as the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), Stilgar (Javier Bardem), the Beast Rabban (David Bautista) and Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). The trailer ends with Paul and his mother, Jessica, confronting one of the great sandworms of Arrakis.

Dune is currently scheduled - pandemic permitting - to hit cinemas globally on 18 December this year.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

New DUNE film gets yet another teaser for its trailer

The first full-length trailer for Denis Villeneuve's new film version of Dune drops tomorrow. Having already given us a taste of the trailer (via a cinema-only teaser airing alongside Tenet), they've now given us a second teaser for the trailer in the form of Paul Atreidets (Timothee Chalamet) voicing the infamous Litany Against Fear.

All very impressive, with what appears to be Hans Zimmer's score crashing over the title card. But I think we're ready for the main trailer tomorrow, and the film itself which (pandemic permitting) will drop on 18 December.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Black Sails: Season 3

Following their betrayal in Charles Town, Flint and the crew of the Walrus have embarked on a bloody campaign of retribution against pirate-chasers and magistrates along the coast of the New World and in the islands, sparking widespread anger in England. An enterprising and ambitious British expedition to retake Nassau is launched, whilst the formidable Edward Teach - the infamous Blackbeard - returns to the island to resume his friendship with Charles Vane.

Following the bloody carnage which ended Season 2 of Black Sails, the third season opens with a much more wide-ranging and ambitious storyline, one that ranges from London to the coast of North America and back to the Bahamas, taking in events from before the show began (revolving around Teach and Hornigold) as well as pushing the story forwards more definitively.

The result is yet another extremely strong season for the show, being one that is rooted in superb character development, some remarkable action setpieces (the writers gaining confidence that the CG can deliver the epic naval battles they're asking for) and some great storytelling. In the storm sequences in the second episode, the show breaks new ground in the level of production value that can be expected from TV shows.

There are a few issues. It takes a long time for the crew of the Walrus to get involved in the action back in Nassau, part of the problem of having established Flint and Silver as such formidable protagonists that the audience would have a hard time believing they couldn't deal with any problem that emerged, but also needing them to get back in the fight quickly and having a realistic shot at dealing with overwhelming ods. The result is some wheel-spinning and convenience (the arrival of an experience pirate warship and a ready-made army of ex-slaves feels a bit too easy), which the show quickly bounces back from.

Black Sails steps up a notch in its final episodes, not being afraid to axe major, long-running characters and ramping up the stakes and tension to a new degree. The new castmembers, particularly the mighty Ray Stevenson (Rome) as Blackbeard and Luke Roberts (a brief but memorable turn as Ser Arthur Dayne in Game of Thrones) as the British commander Woodes Rogers, are excellent and help broaden the scope of the show to its benefit.

Season 3 of Black Sails (****½) might be, by a hair, the strongest season of the show. It balances fine character work with exceptional action and politics with practicalities. The show is available to watch via Amazon Prime in the UK and in the USA via Starz.

Friday, 4 September 2020

The Matrix Revolutions

The AIs and machines are preparing for a final assault on Zion, the last surviving stronghold of the human race. Neo has been offered the chance to spare humanity from annihilation by rebooting the Matrix, an act which will start everything - the war, Zion, the prophecy - again from scratch, but has refused. With humanity's lifespan now measured in hours, Neo in a coma and the Matrix itself being overrun by the rogue Agent Smith program, it appears that all hope has been lost.

The Matrix Revolutions is a curious movie. If The Matrix was the paradigm-shifting, classic original which blended cyberpunk and Hong Kong cinema, then The Matrix Reloaded was the bigger, faster, "more!" sequel with more fights, more explosions, more CGI and more scope and scale. Also a lot more exposition, and hundreds of times more Hugo Weaving (the film asked us, "How much Hugo Weaving is too much Hugo Weaving?" and still never found a satisfactory answer). The Matrix Revolutions then has to be the weird one, starting off with a strange sequence with Neo lost in the Matrix before he is rescued (in a surprisingly non-drawn out manner) by his friends. From there the crew splits in two, with one team racing back to Zion before it comes under attack by the Sentinel army and the other making its way to the machine city, Zero One, to try to broker a peace. Much of the rest of the film is split between the adventures of the two hovercraft and the defenders in Zion.

This structure is fine as far as it goes, but it does rather obviously have a flaw: not a lot of the film (apart from the very start and the very ending) takes place in the Matrix itself, which given that's what the whole trilogy is about feels weird. Instead we're spending a lot of time with characters we've barely met or seen, apart from Morpheus who really doesn't have a lot to do in the movie (you start to realise why so many stories kill the "wise old mentor" character once the protagonist and thus the story outgrows them).

We do get some great action set pieces, such as the Mjolnir's running battle with a Sentinel fleet through miles of underground tunnels, and the assault on Zion is impressively apocalyptic, even if the script is writing cheques that 2003 CGI can't quite cash. The scenes in which thousands of Sentinels sweep through the Zion Dock and there's so many of them they look like a liquid is impressive, albeit somewhat nonsensical (and it's unclear why, if the Sentinels can do that, they don't just scour the Dock clean in a matter of seconds). The film succeeds in ramping up the stakes, although the fact that none of our regular characters are involved in this battle does remove some of the dramatic tension.

Neo and Trinity get a rough ride in the film, having to battle a human possessed by Agent Smith (Ian Bliss - as Bane - doesn't get enough plaudits for his spot-on impression of Hugo Weaving's Smith) before hitting (rater literally) Zero One and confronting the machines' governing core AI, the amusingly-named Deus Ex Machina. For those who enjoy the Matrix films because they get to see Keanu Reeves kicking a lot of butt, Reeves has surprisingly little of that to do in this movie before the big finale. The ending is also surprising, with perhaps the lack of a massive, apocalyptic finale that people were expecting. Instead, the film draws for its resolution on the idea of an negotiated settlement, a deal between humans and the machines, rather than the machines being wiped out altogether.

This resolution disappointed a lot of fans - who wanted a more definitive, final ending rather than what felt like setup for more sequels - but it does have some virtues. The overwhelming superiority of the machines makes any kind of outright human victory over them implausible in the extreme, so resolving the story in another, logical way which was well-established beforehand is a good move. It also pays off the fans who watched The Animatrix beforehand, which made it clear that the machines are thinking, feeling, sentient beings who have very good reasons to hate and distrust humanity, and the war isn't as one-sided as it seems. Of course, for the 99% of viewers who hadn't (and probably still haven't now) seen The Animatrix, it's an altogether less resonant conclusion.

There are plenty of other things to like about The Matrix Revolutions, such as the lack of overlong, overwrought martial arts scenes (something that bogged down Reloaded), replaced by more realistic fistfights outside the Matrix; the top score (this film easily has the best original score of the three, and the least reliant on pre-existing songs); the relatively intelligent (if not entirely emotionally satisfying) finale; and the reasonably impressive action set-pieces. There are also other things to dislike: some of the elements in the ending are not entirely clear (is Neo dead or not?), the personal stakes in the Zion battle are low (we don't really know these people very well) and, although the film is trying to respect the audience's intelligence by not spelling out every little thing, sometimes this results in obfuscation. For example, I spent ages trying to work out what the machines were doing to Neo's body and how that saved the day before I realised they were activating the source code in the One program, resulting in the Matrix rebooting and removing the "infection" in the process. In short, doing exactly what the Architect told us it would do in the previous movie. It's a smarter ending than I first gave it credit for, but it still feels not well-communicated.

The Matrix Revolutions (***½) can't hold a candle to the tight focus and wild inventiveness of the original film, but it's still a watchable and entertaining action movie, and has both better pacing and a stronger structure than The Matrix Reloaded, and far less overwrought fight scenes. So much of the film taking place outside of the Matrix itself is a bit of a risk, confirming that the "real" post-apocalyptic future is less interesting than it might first appear, but broadly speaking the movie works okay and delivers an interesting, if underwhelming finale. I'm interested in seeing where Lana Wachowski can take the franchise in the forthcoming fourth film in the series. The film is available as part of a box set with its predecessors in the UK and USA.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Octavia Butler becomes a New York Times bestselling author

Legendary science fiction author Octavia E. Butler has achieved one of her life's goals, becoming a New York Times bestselling author almost fifteen years after her sad passing.

A reprint of Butler's novel The Parable of the Sower (1993) has hit the list at #14 for several reasons. A popular podcast called Octavia's Parables has been airing this year taking the novel as inspiration, whilst the book has been showing up in TV series such as The OA and High Maintenance. The novel was also adapted this year as a graphic novel.

The Parable of the Sower is the first in a duology, followed by The Parable of the Talents (1998). The books are set in a near future which society has collapsed due to climate change, resource scarcity and rampant inequality, with the rising inequities blamed on racial and religious minorities. The books tell the story of a young woman named Lauren Oya Olamina, who has the ability to feel the pain of people she encounters. Olamina founds a movement called "Earthseed," which seeks to unify mankind to end this period of chaos and bring it together for the ultimate challenge, colonising other worlds. But many dangers threaten the enterprise.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) was one of science fiction's biggest names in the latter part of the 20th Century. She won the Hugo and Nebula awards, and became the first SF author to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. She started writing science fiction in the late 1960s, selling her story "Childfinder" to Harlan Ellison for The Last Dangerous Visions (and thus has never been published) and "Crossover" to the annual Clarion anthology (1971). Her best-known works, along with the Earthseed duology, are the Patternist series and the Xenogenesis Trilogy. Her other work includes Kindred (1979), Bloodchild (1984) and Fledgling (2005).

Butler planned a third novel in the series, Parable of the Trickster, but was unable to complete it before her passing.

Horizon Zero Dawn

The old world has been destroyed but its legacies remain: vast, ruined cities, strange underground structures and, everywhere, machines. Scrappers sifting through ruins, Grazers absorbing nutrients from the ground, Watchers keeping an eye out for human interlopers and, terrifyingly, Thunderjaws and Stormbirds as massive engines of destruction. Humanity has been reduced to a small number of tribes, hunting machines for material resources and animals for food. Strict codes of conduct govern their behaviour, with the merest transgression leading to exile.

Aloy has lived her entire life in exile, raised by the outcast hunter Rost. Aloy has no idea why she was banished from the Nora Tribe at the moment of her birth, but Rost advises her of a loophole in the law: if, upon coming of age, Aloy can win a competition known as the Proving she will be allowed to rejoin the Nora. Rose trains Aloy in the ways of hunting, combat and survival, but Aloy has extra help: a Focus, a device of the old world that helps her identify threats and find hidden paths. Aloy's skills and talent will be tested when a new threat to the Nora is identified, one which will take her far from her homeland in search of answers to questions about her very existence, and how this world came to be.

In a lot of post-apocalyptic video games, the reasons for why the old world was destroyed are pretty irrelevant: the game just needs a cool backdrop for exploration and adventure, and sticking in a ruined Capitol Building, an overgrown Hollywood sign or a Hoover Dam turned into a fortified military base can be a good shortcut of letting players know what's what. Horizon Zero Dawn - which sends you scrabbling into the ruins of Denver, Colorado just a couple of hours into its lengthy runtime - initially feels like the same sort of game. The world has been destroyed and the wilderness is now overrun by robot animals. Cool. Move on. But after a while the game, it becomes clear, hasn't thrown these things in just for giggles. The writers and designers at Guerrilla Games have done something very unusual by modern gaming standards: they've come up with a deep, rich and well-thought-out backstory and mythology for their title, one that makes the story and the world matter in a way they don't in so many other franchises.

Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that initially feels overfamiliar. The game is set in an impressively-sized open world which you can explore at leisure, packed with robotic monsters and human enemies to defeat, bandit camps to conquer, quests to undertake and better gear to unlock, along with a sprawling skill tree to slowly level up through. It's another open-world action game, a genre that feels not so much over-explored at the moment as utterly exhausted. From the solid Grand Theft Auto V to the fun-but-shallow Fallout 4 to the disappointing Far Cry 5, the open world game is starting to feel like a done deal and the prospect of yet another huge map filled with icons for you to tick off like a violent accountant may cause some to groan and move on.

Fortunately, Horizon Zero Dawn is much more at the Witcher 3 end of the quality scale than the identkit Ubisoft collect 'em up one. The game ties together it's central storyline, where Aloy is trying to uncover the mysteries of her birth and her past, with the side-activities in a highly organic manner. Aloy is a hunter, an explorer and, later on, a Seeker, effectively a licensed adventurer and peacekeeper, so it makes sense for people to stop her and ask for her help, and for her to agree. The game deserves plaudits for how it organises quests into categories: "main" quests directly push forward the main story. "Side" quests are useful for exploring the world and new locations, but not essential to progress. "Errands" are not important at all and don't even further your understanding of the world and its factions, but are a source of experience and loot. Other tasks are simply listed by location: hunting areas, Cauldrons (effectively techno-dungeons, in a splendidly inverted Dungeons & Dragons twist where cavernous underground sources of adventure and loot are highly high-tech robot factories) and bandit camps, which can be cleared out and turned into new, allied settlements. Side activities can be ignored, but completionists are rewarded as doing these missions gains Aloy new friends and allies who may show up later in the game to provide support during tough missions, especially the grand finale.

The game's storyline starts off rote - why was Aloy abandoned as a baby, and why was she immediately outcast by the tribal elders? - but rapidly becomes more complex through a series of brutal plot twists. Aloy's understanding of herself involves uncovering what exactly happened to the old world, where the early and familiar answers - humans in the late 21st Century created military AI which rapidly gained sentience and spiralled out of control - are rapidly complicated and given much greater nuance and understanding as Aloy uncovers holographic recordings and logs of those events. The true story of what happened to Earth in the late 21st Century becomes central to the present-day story in the game, a rare example of backstory and present-day narrative combining into a single, cohesive whole. These stories are delivered through splendid, much-better-than-expected writing, dialogue and voice acting (Lance Reddick from The Wire and Fringe is particularly excellent as Aloy's extremely reluctant "guy in a van" advisor, Sylens, she inadvertently contacts via her Focus). Aloy herself is a strong protagonist, one who goes through some knocks as the game progresses and learns some incredibly disturbing secrets, but never loses her wry sense of humour, optimism or hope. After a near-endless parade of video game protagonists who are taciturn, gruff and relentlessly cynical, Aloy's relative confidence and integrity is a welcome relief.

This incredibly strong narrative and character-focus, but where the player is free to break away at almost any time to pursue their own agendas. Those who want to build up their skills and experience through hunting missions can do so, and the game's strongly dominant storyline is helped by its robust combat system. Human enemies are fairly easy to dispose of, but the game's real challenge comes from fighting the "mechafauna," animal-like robots who can be found spread across the entire landscape. These machines come in different types, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, weapons and abilities, and learning these about each type is crucial to defeating them. Early in the game fighting even a bottom-tier machine can be fraught with peril and pursuing a stealth build (allowing you to take down low-ranking machines in a single hit from cover) can pay off handsomely. Later on, you can gain access to more exotic weapons, such as "tearblast" arrows which can rip machines' armour and externally-mounted weapons clean off before you can engage them in more direct combat. Aloy's growing prowess is offset by the game steadily drip-feeding tougher and more powerful machines into the fray, culminating in the top-tier creatures, the T-rex-like Thunderjaw and the massively-winged Stormbird (visible from several miles away, at which distance it's already bigger than the much smaller Glinthawks when they're right next to you), which will have you running screaming for cover the first time you see them. The satisfaction gained when you finally bring these behemoths down is immense.

The game does not lack for content: a comprehensive playthrough taking note of all the secondary material and completing the expansion, The Frozen Wilds, will easily take around 60 hours, if not more. Even that opens up new possibilities, including unlocking "New Game+" mode and new difficulty levels to give you more of a challenge. If you're less interested in the optional stuff, you can mainline the main story in under 30 hours or so, and even play on "Story Mode" where combat is decidedly trivial and, in many cases, unnecessary. 

Horizon Zero Dawn does not have many negatives. The expansion relies perhaps a little too much on fighting one particularly annoying new enemy type which can be a bit tedious. Hitting 100% on the game requires grinding certain hunting missions which can get very repetitive very quickly. It's a little too easy to spend all your money and resources during and after a particularly tough fight, forcing you to spend some time gathering new resources and supplies before the next battle. But then that's also a central part of the gameplay, and as the game continues Aloy's ability to resupply becomes much more powerful (towards the end of the game you can go from being totally out-resourced to fully equipped and ready to roll again in a few minutes). Truth be told, the only complaint than can really be made about Horizon Zero Dawn are the technical issues on the PC version of the game, which are being addressed through patches (see postscript).

Horizon Zero Dawn (*****) is visually-stunning, well-written, impressively characterised and it has a central SF storyline and backstory (along with what the cool kids are calling "lore" these days) which ranks amongst the best in recent video games, certainly in the AAA space. The game is perhaps a tad slow to get going, but once it catches fire it never lets up through dozens of hours of hunting, exploring, fighting and learning more about how this world came to be. The game is available now on PlayStation 4 and PC, and an enhanced and expanded edition should be available for the PlayStation 5 after it launches.

Technical Postscript: Horizon Zero Dawn's PC port has suffered a number of technical glitches and problems since release. Although several major problems were fixed quickly through the release of two patches and several hotfixes, other issues remain. I was lucky that my experience was mostly smooth sailing, with only a few crashes (oddly only after the first patch was released and then addressed in the second). Weird framerate spikes were a more consistent problem across multiple settings and even continued when upgraded to a new graphics card (an nVidia 2060), although I was only playing at standard HD resolution. This seems to not be related to how the graphics are rendered but how the Decima Engine handles the background streaming and loading of assets; simply put, the engine wasn't designed to handle the vastly more rapid camera movements that the PC can handle compared to the PS4. Death Stranding, which uses the same engine, was designed from the ground up to be a PC title, so they fixed these problems in development. Horizon Zero Dawn, which was never supposed to be a PC game and was ported by Sony as a revenue-generating experiment, hasn't quite had the same expertise expended on it. Fortunately, Death Stranding's much more solid port shows that these issues can be fixed with the engine and I expect they will in time (a third patch was released just before this time of writing which fixed several of these issues).

In the meantime, one solution which has fixed a lot of problems is switching on "Hardware-accelerated GPU scheduling". To do this, make sure you have the Windows 10 2004 update installed (this is one of the newer major updates, and may not have auto-installed for everyone yet), then right-click on desktop > Display Settings > Graphics Settings > Hardware-accelerated GPU scheduling ON. Then restart the PC. This should eliminate a lot of the background stutter which in turn causes some of the crashes.

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Season 2 of THE MANDALORIAN gets an airdate

Disney and Lucasfilm have confirmed that Season 2 of The Mandalorian will land on Disney+ on 30 October.

The first season of The Mandalorian was a hit when it arrived on Disney+ at the end of last year, generating critical acclaim as well as a meme for the ages with "Baby Yoda". The second season will pick up shortly after the first and will feature an ongoing conflict between the titular Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito). The season will feature some new guest casts including Michael Biehn as a bounter hunter, Timothy Olyphant as Cobb Vanth (from the Star Wars: Aftermath series of novels), Katee Sackhoff as Bot-Katan Kryze (from The Clone Wars and Rebels), Temuera Morrison as a former clone trooper (and allegedly Boba Fett), and Rosario Dawson reportedly playing the role of fan-favourite former Jedi apprentice Ahsoka Tano.

Principal shooting of Season 2 began before Season 1 even aired and concluded just a few weeks before the global pandemic shut down global film production in March. Post-production has been mostly done remotely, although the show's heavy use of virtual sets and greenscreens meant that socially-distanced filming is much more practical for this show than most. Pre-production and planning for a third season is already underway.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

GAME OF THRONES showrunners to produce THREE-BODY PROBLEM adaptation for Netflix

Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have announced their first project for Netflix: an adaptation of Chinese author Liu Cixin's Remembrance of Earth's Past Trilogy, better-known by the name of its first book, The Three-Body Problem.

The Game of Thrones showrunners bailed on their Star Wars movie project last year in favour of a development deal with Netflix, reportedly worth $200 million. Benioff and Weiss will produce and may write for the series, although day-to-day showrunning will reportedly by handled by Alexander Woo, who most recently helmed The Terror: Infamy.

The project has a number of producers and backers, including Breaking Bad, Star Wars and Knives Out director Rian Johnson and actress-producer Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, The World's End, The Wheel of Time), who's been branching out into producing in recent years. It's unclear if Pike is considering acting in the series, although her schedule will be full of The Wheel of Time for Amazon for the next few years.

Liu Cixin and his English-language translator, Ken Liu, are also consultants and producers on the project. The Three-Body Problem (2006) is one of the biggest-selling Chinese language works of science fiction of all time and has picked up considerable critical acclaim since it was published in English in 2014. It won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015 and has won critical plaudits from Barack Obama, Kim Stanley Robinson and George R.R. Martin, amongst others. It tells the story of an alien world, Trisolaris, that is caught in a problematic orbit around three stars which periodically causes the total collapse of civilisation. The current Trisolarians have launched a series of massive colony ships towards Earth to help escape their predicament, leading to the prospect of interstellar war.

The Three-Body Problem was followed by The Dark Forest (2008) and  Death's End (2010), as well as a sequel by another writer, The Redemption of Time (2011) by Li Jun.

DUNE trailer to be released on 9 September

A new Dune teaser attached to screenings of Tenet has confirmed that the first full trailer for the film will be released on 9 September.

The teaser - because trailers for trailers remain a thing - depicts the sequence from early in the story where the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) forces Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) to undergo a test using a pain box and her Gom Jabbar (a poison-coated needle). There are establishing shots of the vast deserts of Arrakis, a glimpse of an ornithopter (with actually beating wings!) and shots of key characters Duke Let Atreides (Oscar Issac), Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), Stilgar (Javier Bardem), Chani (Zendaya), Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard), Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Dr. Wellington Yueh (Chang Cheng), Dr. Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), the Beast Rabban (Dave Bautista) and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa).

For some reason, the teaser has not been officially released online yet. The full trailer, hopefully, will be next week.

Dune is currently scheduled to open in cinemas worldwide on 18 December.

Sunday, 30 August 2020

The Matrix Reloaded

The AIs who control the world have decreed the destruction of Zion, the last free human city. As a vast army of Sentinels digs towards Zion, Neo must use his developing powers to help end the war from inside the Matrix. A message from the Oracle leads him towards a meeting with the Architect, whose revelations will change everything. But both sides in the war have reckoned without a wild card, the return of a program that should have been destroyed but has instead gone rogue and started spreading like a virus with only one purpose in mind: the end of everything.

It took four years for the Wachowskis to deliver their sequel to their 1999 paradigm-shifting action classic, The Matrix. As they developed ideas for the project, they realised they couldn't fit them into one movie so split it in two, with the two halves released six months apart. All the cool kids were doing this back in 2003, with Peter Jackson filming his three-part Lord of the Rings adaptation in one block and then releasing the films at one-year intervals. This was a huge success. The Matrix sequels had a rather more mixed reception.

The Matrix Reloaded does do a few very good things. The action scenes are stronger, the actors having trained for far longer and more in-depth for their martial arts scenes. There's far more spectacular stunts (the opening sequence with Trinity single-handedly destroying an office block and then engaging in aerial combat with an Agent remains outstanding), more worldbuilding, huge plot revelations and some clever ideas sprinkled amongst the action, although the philosophising of the first film has mostly fallen by the wayside.

Unfortunately, the film's good elements are dented by the fact that the pacing is poor. The Matrix Reloaded has a fairly simple plot progression: Neo has to meet with the Oracle, strike a deal with the deceitful (and randomly French) Merovingian and then follow a path to meet the Architect, whilst fairly nascent subplots follow a rivalry between Morpheus and Zion's military commander and the gathering of Zion's forces to oppose the machine army. This could easily have been done in under 90 minutes with plenty of time for cool action scenes, but for some reason the Wachowskis decided they had to use every single penny of the budget (twice that of the first film). As a result we get an absolutely absurd fight sequence between Neo and several hundred Agent Smith clones, which the technology is not quite able to deliver: the all-CG scenes between a blatantly fake Keanu Reeves and lots of claymation-looking Hugo Weavings are particularly painful. Even more offensive, because it is simply not important to the plot, is a hallway fight scene between Neo and the Merovingian's mediocre bodyguards which feels like it goes on longer than the Hundred Years' War. There's also a rave/dance party in Zion near the start of the film which feels a bit pointless (although prefiguring the Wachowski's love of showing people having a good time, which would inform their later Netflix project Sense8).

Other action sequences also go on a bit too long, but they are at least a lot more varied and fun: Seraph and Neo's first meeting taking the form of a friendly table-based martial arts battle is as daft as a brush, but so technically impressive that it's less of a problem. The massive battle sequence on the freeway is also a bit bloated, but it has a lot more combatants and is very impressively handled. There's also some nice character beats, such as Morpheus - who's clearly been trained up by Neo and his new powers in the meantime - relishing the chance to go toe-to-toe with an Agent on more event terms.

The film was heavily criticised for the revelatory sequence with Neo and the Architect. Partially I think this was the fault of the extended gap between the films, during which time fans had come up with all sorts of theories on the Internet, some of them fairly compelling. The most constant and pernicious of these was that the "real world" was another level of the Matrix, and a lot of people were unhappy this wasn't the case. Personally I was relieved, because I think the Wachowskis would have lost the mass audience if they'd gone too wankery with the premise (in the event it would be another decade before Christopher Nolan played that card, more or less successfully, with Inception). And as it turns out a lot of the fans were right, the real world situation was another layer of control, just not in the way they were expecting. Still, I think the problem with the scene is, both ergo and concordantly, more in its presentation than the plot revelations it contains.

The film also has another problem: bits of it are missing. The Wachowskis wanted to make The Matrix Reloaded a genuine multimedia experience™, with synergy© between different franchise brand products™. The result is that to get the best out of the movie, you need to have watched the animated short film collection The Animatrix and played the video game Enter the Matrix beforehand. Which obviously about 99.5% of viewers had not done (and, seventeen years after release, doing either is a bit difficult with The Animatrix not being available in all territories and Enter the Matrix not being playable on modern systems, not that you'd want it to be; it's not a good game). As a result, references to the final mission of the Osiris or the Logos crew and Niobe being constantly treated as a big deal when they're missing from most of the film feel a bit weird.

Still, the film does a lot that's right. The Wachowskis realising that they had a gift that would not stop giving in the form of Hugo Weaving and making 1000% use of him in the sequels was a good move. The expansion of the world and the cast is mostly successful and the action sequences and effects are technically impressive, until they become over-egged and self-indulgent.

The Matrix Reloaded (***) is a watchable, sometimes fun but overlong, overwrought and over-budgeted sequel to a great movie. It does a lot that's good and is never less than interesting, but with more judicious editing it could have been sharper, tighter and more compelling. The film is available as part of a box set with its predecessor and sequel in the UK and USA.

Saturday, 29 August 2020

HIS DARK MATERIALS Season 2 gets trailer and launch window

Season 2 of His Dark Materials, based on the Philip Pullman novel The Subtle Knife, has a new trailer which confirms that the series should return in November.

Season 2 of His Dark Materials was filmed mostly before the first season aired, with a view to minimising the wait between seasons and also not running into the problem of the young actors growing up. Unfortunately, the global coronavirus pandemic has thrown the original plan - to base a Season 3 renewal on the Season 1 ratings and get filming again quickly - for a wrench. Although the show got very strong ratings in the UK on the BBC, its performance on HBO in the States was patchier and the critical reception more muted. It sounds like HBO will now judge their commitment to a third and possibly fourth season (the producers are considering the option of splitting an adaptation of the third novel across two seasons) on how the second season performs.

His Dark Materials is based on the novel trilogy of the same name. Season 1 adapted the book Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass in the USA) and Season 3, if it happens, is expected to adapt The Amber Spyglass.

Pullman is currently writing the concluding novel of The Book of Dust, a new trilogy set both before and after His Dark Materials. The first two books, La Belle Sauvage and The Secret Commonwealth, are already out. The final book has the current working title The Garden of Roses.

First image of a sandworm released from the new DUNE movie

Thanks to Empire Magazine, we have the first image of a sandworm from Denis Villeneuve's new Dune film.

It's not the clearest of images but it depicts the gaping maw of one of sandworms of Arrakis, the vast creatures of the desert which are used by the Fremen as steeds and weapons of war.

Empire has two other images from the movie that they've used for magazine covers. The "Atreides" cover features Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson).

The "Arrakis" cover features Chani (Zendaya), Stilgar (Javier Bardem), Liet-Kynes (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa).

Fans are eagerly awaiting the first trailer for the film, which has already been seen in the wild, attached to some Canadian theatrical screenings of Tenet. Based on some leaked information, it sounds like the trailer will be released online on 9 September, although some are speculating this may be moved up as images and even sneakily-filmed copies of the trailer threaten to proliferate in the next week or so.

Dune is currently scheduled for release on 18 December this year, pandemic permitting.

Wertzone Classics: The Matrix

Computer programmer Thomas Anderson, who sports the hacking alias "Neo," is contacted by the mysterious Morpheus, a hacking paragon who offers to share with him information about a rumoured computer network known as the Matrix. Evading detention by sunglasses-wearing Agents, Neo meets Morpheus and learns the truth: the entire human race has been enslaved by advanced AIs to be used as batteries to power their systems. The Matrix is a computer simulation of the past, used to keep humans unaware of their true, nightmarish existence. Morpheus offers Neo the chance to escape the dream and help bring about the liberty of the human race.

Released in 1999, The Matrix rapidly became one of the most highly-acclaimed science fiction action films of its era. Its impact was heightened by the perceived disappointment of that year's Star Wars film, The Phantom Menace, and the fact that at the time of its release a number of other films (such as Dark City, eXistenZ and The Thirteenth Floor) had been recently released tackling similar themes but had failed to make much impact. The Matrix struck gold with a more high-concept, simply-relatable premise (what if our lives are an illusion?), a large number of impressive action scenes, some intriguing-if-shallow philosophical asides on free will and an extraordinarily great cast, particularly the impressive find of the then-unknown Carrie Ann Moss and rising talent Hugo Weaving, as well as hugely career-boosting turns from Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne.

One of the reasons The Matrix works is the idea it borrows from various Hong Kong action cinema and Japanese anime movies, namely the fact that the action is justified by the plot, as are the increasingly insane stunts, action set pieces and martial arts on display. For once, implausible action scenes, balletic martial arts scenes and frenetic gunplay is justified by the hyper-real setting of the Matrix itself, and the ability of both the Agents and Morpheus's band of rebels to twist the simulation to their own benefit.

The Matrix is also helped by its challenging budget. This has been overstated a bit over the years - $70 million in 1999 was still a solid sum of money (comparable to the budget of Independence Day three years earlier) - but the budget was still relatively low given some of the ideas and concepts that the Wachowskis wanted to pull off, forcing the effects team to consider low-fi solutions to problems (such as doing most fight scenes in-camera with the actual actors suspended on wires) given the limited amount of CG they could call upon. This gives the film a lot of credibility with the actors often undertaking their own stunts, allowing impressive close-ups even mid-fight.

From a philosophical viewpoint, the film muses on various real-world influences such as Jean Baudrillard's Simulacres et Simulation (Baudrillard found the film's understanding of his ideas to be flawed) and elements from Descartes, Kant and Taoism. The film uses these ideas somewhat clumsily - expression and economy of dialogue is clearly not a priority, as evidenced during lengthy exposition scenes from Morpheus - but in doing so it brought them to a much wider audience and inspired newer ideas. The central concept in the film, that reality is not real by a computer-generated illusion, was later expanded on by Nick Bostrom in his 2003 simulation hypothesis.

However, the real success of The Matrix is in its establishment of a new world and mythos that is interesting and engaging, if not hugely convincing in this film (the two sequels and, more successfully, the animated spin-off project The Animatrix expand and explore on elements that feel under-explored here). For example, the notion of the machines using humans as batteries rather than, for example, far more cost-effective geothermal or nuclear energy is a bit preposterous until The Animatrix reveals that it was humanity's repeated aggression against the AIs, who initially only wanted peace after achieving sentience and independence, that led to the AIs decision to enslave humanity and use them as a fuel source out of both a need for revenge but also a humanitarian reluctance to fully wipe out their creators.

Twenty-one years on from release, The Matrix (****½) remains a highly watchable movie. The action is convincing and impressive, the cast is magnetically engaging and help overcome an occasionally clumsy script, and the philosophical ideas and allusions add intelligence (or at least a veneer of it) to the SF action adventure mix. The film is available as part of a box set with its two sequels in the UK and USA.