Farewell To The Expanse

After six seasons, The Expanse ended its television run when its last episode “Babylon’s Ashes” streamed on Amazon Prime Video this week.

The sixth and final season of The Expanse was the culmination of the long-running storyline of the tensions among human societies in the solar system. Based on the novels by James. S.A. Corey (the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), The Expanse takes place in a future where humans have an uneasy existence throughout our solar system. Earth and Mars are locked in a cold war with each other, while at the colonies in the outer planets, people, called “Belters”, live under harsh and meager conditions. They detest the “Inners” for their lush lifestyle and strive to be recognized as a legitimate power. During the TV series an alien substance called the protomolecule was discovered. It was able to alter both organic and inorganic matter and eventually formed a gigantic Ring structure near Uranus that functioned as an intergalactic gateway to other solar systems. The latter seasons dealt with the ramifications of this event as humanity began spreading to other worlds.

In the fifth season, a Belter terrorist named Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) rose to power in the colonies and decimated Earth by bombarding it with multiple asteroids. Meanwhile, he joined forces with rogue Martian factions to form the Free Navy and seized control of the Ring and the gateway to other star systems. By the start of the sixth season, Earth was on the verge of becoming uninhabitable from the fallout of the asteroid impacts. In the final season Earth and Mars allied with each other to hunt down Inaros regain access to the Ring and negotiate a peace with the Belters.

The Expanse

The show centered on the crew of the Rocinante, James Holden (Steven Strait) of Earth, Naomi Nagato (Dominique Tipper), a Belter who bore a son with Inaros, Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), a tough mechanic from Earth, and Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole), a former criminal struggling to find some measure of redemption. Together they joined the fight against Inarus and his followers. Other characters include Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams), a battle-hardened Martian marine allied with the Rocinante crew, United Nations Secretary-General Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a caustic and practical leader who wants nothing more than to save Earth and end the war, Naomi and Inaros’ son Filip (Jasai Chase-Owens), who joined his father in the struggle but started questioning his father’s fanatic ideaology, and Camina Drummer (Cara Gee), a Belter pirate who rebeled against Inaros and the Free Navy.

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The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring 20 Years Later

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month and looking back, it’s clear now, how influential this highly successful film has become. Peter Jackson’s epic start to The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy paved the way for a fantasy film revival that is still going strong today and led to similar adaptations such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, Amazon Prime’s The Wheel of Time, and other fantasy-themed films and shows. The Fellowship of the Rings’ success wasn’t a sure thing though, as author J.R.R. Tolkien’s massive novel was deemed unfilmable due to its intricate plot and long back story which spanned thousands of years.

The earliest film version was the animated adaptation from Ralph Bakshi in 1978. Tje animated version of LOTR was well received, but due to time constraints the film only told half the story. Jackson’s take is a fully fleshed out world that showcases his native New Zealand’s beautiful landscapes and scenery that show the viewers what Middle-earth would look like if it really existed. He also takes his time in setting up the tale of the diminutive hobbit Frodo Baggins and his quest to destroy an evil mystical ring created by the sorcerer Sauron. His journey would culminated in casting the ring into a volcanic pit in the dreaded land of Mordor.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring starts off by showing some of Tolkien’s back story and the history of Middle-earth where the rings of power were created for men, elves and dwarves, as well as the epic battle against Sauron where he is defeated, but only temporarily. After the battle, the all-powerful one ring was lost and found its way to the distant land of hobbits known as the Shire.

Frodo’s journey begins when the wizard Gandalf arrives at the Shire and enlists him and his companions Samwise Gamgee, Merry and Pippin to accompany Gandalf to Mordor to destroy the one ring which Sauron needs to conquer the world. Along the way, the group encounters the heroic ranger, Strider (later to be known as Aragorn) and the stalwart dwarf, Gimli and his rival the elf, Legolas as they all join forces to become the Fellowship of the Ring. Together they vow to end the threat of Sauron once and for all.

Their journey through the elf kingdom Rivendell and the mines of Moria are all classic set pieces that are fully brought to life and culminate in an epic battle against swarms of orcs (Sauron’s minions) and a final clash between Gandalf and a massive demon known as a Balrog. Fate has the fellowship splinter and go their own way as Frodo and Sam are left to go on alone to Mordor while Strider, Legolas and Gimli race to rescue the other hobbits who were captured by orcs. This sets up the excellent sequel, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which was just as successful as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

The success of The Fellowship of the Ring was crucial as it paved the way for the subsequent films and established LOTR as a huge cinematic franchise that spawned further adaptations of the earlier Middle-earth book The Hobbit, as well as a new TV series coming from Amazon that will explore the earlier time periods of Middle-earth. It also led to the groundbreaking success at the Academy Awards of the third film in the trilogy The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which won 11 Oscars including Best Picture. This was the first time a genre film won this honor and led to increased respect and awareness for genre films as valid, cinematic art. It was also a blueprint for how book adaptations can be done, even for complex works, such as the recently released Dune or even earlier films like Watchmen.

The film studio New Line Cinema committed to Jackson’s vision and gave him the required financial resources and time to have his ideas come to life and Jackson committed to filming all three LOTR movies back to back, which was a massive undertaking and spanned multiple years. This was seen in throughout all three movies as the details of the imaginary world are incredible to see and experience. Of all three movies, I think The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is the best one as its story is paced very well and has elicits a whirlwind of emotions for viewers. It has moments of terror, such as when Frodo first encounters the ring wraiths who were hunting him and the ring; instances of wonder when the group arrives at Rivendell; and pure excitement when the Fellowship has its last battle in the mines of Moria. It is also the only time you see all of the main characters together until the end of the last film as they are separated at the end of the first movie and go their own separate ways. Their interaction as a group is a highlight as their differences in personality and stature are humorous and flesh out their characters.

Overall, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a masterpiece film, not just in the fantasy genre, but in all of cinema with superb storytelling mixed with unforgettable characters and stunning visual effects. Its impact is still being felt and will continue to be enjoyed and imitated for decades to come, as will its sequels. Hopefully the upcoming Amazon series will be able to recapture some of the magic that was apparent as soon as Frodo walked out of his home and we saw the Shire and Middle-earth in live action for the very first time.

C.S. Link

Denis Villenueve’s Majestic Dune

Dune is a classic science fiction novel written by Frank Herbert in 1965 that tells the story of a young man in the far future who leads a desert planet people to freedom. It’s a very complicated tale that has a deep back story that has been difficult to translate to film due to its complexity. The first film adaptation directed by David Lynch in 1984 was met with a mixed reception. It was a lavish production that looked and felt like Dune, but also took liberties with the story and was edited and cut out much of Herbert’s vision. The Sci-Fi Channel released a mini-series in 2000 that was more faithful to the book and was longer than Lynch’s film, but was made on a limited TV budget that was sometimes evident with painted backgrounds and weird costumes. 

Denis Villenueve’s Dune is the latest adaption of this epic tale that takes place in the far future. Humanity has spread to the whole galaxy and is ruled by the Padisha Emperor, and that empire is controlled by an addictive substance known as spice that extends life, enables interstellar space travel, and allows some to see into the future. This precious resource is only found on one planet, Arrakis, also know as Dune, which is populated by a nomadic group of people known as the Fremen. They have a prophecy that a man from off world will lead them to glory and freedom. This man is young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the son of Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac), who is gifted control of the planet by the emperor. This gift, however is a double edged sword, with plots against the Atreides hatched by the emperor and House Atreides’ sworn enemies, House Harkonnen. These machinations force Paul to embrace not just his future but the the destiny of the galaxy.

Villenueve’s take on the material is excellent and shows a great respect for the essence of the story. The movie has the best elements of previous adaptions, with the right look and feel of the 1984 film, along with the faithfulness of the mini-series. The new movie takes it time in telling the story which is the right way, since it is a deep and complex story of prescience, politics, and ecology to name a few things that make Dune a book that is still enjoyed and admired decades after its publication.  Paul’s frequent visions of his future with the Fremen and his future lover Chani (Zendaya) are shown in an interesting and mysterious way, and the appearance and mannerisms of the different factions of the Dune universe are also a highlight. From Mentats making calculations with their human computer minds to the emperor’s Sardarkaur troops speaking in a weird, guttural language, this feels like a different time and place, as it should since it takes place over 10,000 years into the future.

Paul’s journey from son of a Duke to the head of his family is done in a convincing way, with good performances from a great cast. Timothée Chalamet shows the conflicted nature of Paul, who can see his future and is reluctant to make it happen, yet feels obligated to continue his father’s work. Oscar Isaac, as his father Duke Leto, also does well as the heroic leader of House Atreides, who knows that the gift of Arrakis to his family is a trap, yet also feels the pull of duty to go forward in taking control of the spice while warning his son of what is to come. Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica is well portrayed by Rebecca Ferguson, who shows the agony of a mother giving her son over to a possible death at the hands of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a group that has plans on genetically breeding a super human who can transcend time and space and see Paul as that potential being. The well-rounded cast includes other such names as Jason Momoa, Zendaya, Javier Bardem and Stellan Skarsgard as the Baron Harkonnen. All of which provide excellent interpretations of these iconic characters.

One issue I had with the movie, is that because of the strong focus on Paul Atreides and his mother, there are some characters that do not show up at all, such as Princess Irulan, Feyd Rathua Harkonnen, and Emperor Shaddam IV. These are important characters to the story, but due to the obvious time constraints in a two-and-a-half hour movie and the needs of a very complicated story, this is a consequence. Speaking of which, the title of the movie at the beginning says “Dune, Part 1”. Villenueve chose to make the movie based on the first half of the book. I think this was the only choice, since trying to cram the whole book into one film will lead to issues that can happen in film adaptations of books, where much of the plot can be lost or rushed. I would have liked to have seen perhaps a three-hour version, so that these missing characters could show up, and that the villainous Harkonnens could have more of the limelight. Having said that, it is still better to have a Dune film that lets the story unfold, which this one does. I have heard complaints about the ending of the movie, that it is supposedly abrupt, but I didn’t see it that way. It feels like a good ending point for that part of the journey, where Paul and Jessica embark on a new phase of their lives with the Fremen, and the Harkonnens still lurking as a major threat. Early indications are that the film is doing well and hopefully this will lead to the expected part 2 that will finish the tale of Paul Atreides’ rise to power, and the establishment of the legendary Dune universe.

C.S. Link

A Brief Look At Stephen King’s Cell

Stephen King’s Cell was written in the post-9/11 world and published in 2006. At the same time was a tribute to the horror sub-genre of lone survivors coping in a world overrun by maniacs, monsters and other terrors. Oddly enough the novel has some new relevance in today’s world in showing how society has abruptly been turned upside down by a “virus”. In the book’s case this virus is not biological but technological with devastating results.

On the surface, one might want to compare this to a flesh-eating zombie movie and the book’s dedication to George Romero (and Richard Matheson who wrote the classic post-apocalyptic thriller I Am Legend) adds to that comparison. But that isn’t necessarily the case, it follows the spirit of those zombie films but there aren’t any zombies in Cell. Rather it’s more comparable to Romero’s film The Crazies or 28 Days Later where civilized society is turned upside down when formerly normal people become raving murderous lunatics. Meanwhile, complete strangers band together to deal with a suddenly dangerous world. Note, although the film adaptation was not as terrible as most critics claimed, the less said about Cell (2016), the better.

The novel begins in Boston with Clay Riddell, a struggling freelance comic book artist who just caught his big break by landing for a graphic novel. He is on his way home to Maine, eager to break the news to his estranged wife and son Johnny when the Pulse hits. A signal goes out instantly over all cell phones everywhere that scrambles the brain of anyone who happens to be using a cell phone. Within seconds, anyone affected by the Pulse is turned into an insane murderer without any reason or intelligence. Clay witnesses to his horror seemingly normal people viciously attacking each other and those who weren’t affected by the Pulse. The sequences described are quite horrific and brings to mind the chaos and sense of being overwhelmed that the nation experienced during 9/11. People are running everywhere as explosions rock the city and no one can understand what is exactly going on.

As Clay evades the “phoners” (the people who turned into maniacs during the Pulse) he meets Tom McCourt and Alice Maxwell. They decide to get out of Boston,  and avoid any cities since the chaos is intensified in the urban landscapes. Eventually they reach Tom’s residence just outside of the city and discover after the chaos dies down that the phoners have developed a sort of hive mind. The phoners are seen migrating toward an unknown destination.  Clay’s own goal is to reach his hometown and find his wife and child. The other two decide to join him so they gather supplies and guns hike up north.

Along their journey, the group meets other survivors and battles more phoners  as the novel’s pessimistic mood gets even deeper. The reader is made to feel discouraged and broken by the characters’ hopeless plight as the phoners consolidate their grip on the world. They reach Clay’s hometown and discover his wife became a phoner during the Pulse but his son did not and fled further up north to Kashwak. Apparently the phoners are psychically herding all normal people up to this place by suggesting that it is a safe haven. During this trek, Clay and the others have had shared dreams that they were rounded up in a carnival-like arena surrounded by hordes of phoners. Despite knowing that Kashwak is a trap, Clay decides to go anyway in the slim hope of finding his son.

The ending itself is rather ambiguous and open-ended. Basically the reader has to decide what was the ultimate fate of the characters, although by the novel’s end the pessimistic tone seems to subside a bit to offer a glimmer of realistic hope.

Many have compared this book to Stephen King’s earlier book, The Stand, but there are diverse differences. While The Stand had an epic apocalyptic feel to it, Cell does not. Also the religious overtones and themes from The Stand are absent in Cell. Unlike his previous novel, this one focuses on a small group of survivors who are just trying to get by, whereas The Stand had a huge dramatis personae. One thing Cell has that the older book lacked are the 9/11 references, which adds a level of immediacy. And this is evident in the origin of the Pulse. Believed to be caused by terrorists, the incident represents the feeling of the world unexpectedly turned upside down.

The Pulse also shattered many illusions about our feeling of security in our civilization and the horror comes from learning how fragile our society is from how easy it falls apart. This fragility takes on an urgent relevance given our current situation. Of course, we are not on the verge of collapsing because of the coronavirus, but it has had a decided impact on how we live day to day. Despite its grim tone, the novel illustrated how human connections and relationships are key to our survival and why we will persevere in this crisis.

The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy: An Honest Assessment

With the release of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy and the entire nine-film Skywalker Saga has come to an end. The film has had its share of controversy, scorn and praise from all parties. Despite what trolls hoped for, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is an actual hit film. Now as to its quality, that is another story. Personally, I truly enjoyed the film but am honest enough to admit the latest Star Wars film is riddled with plot holes and faults. Still it did enough to entertain me and others and provided closure to the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy. Looking at the three films in this trilogy it is fair to opine that on the whole, the trilogy was badly flawed and can be considered to be the weakest of the three Star Wars trilogies. And that is due to many reasons, especially one: it is clear that Lucasfilm and its owners Disney did not have a clear plan for the sequel trilogy and it hobbled the films overall.

Inconsistent Characters

Looking at the past three films (standalone films aside), it was difficult to tell what was the main story. The only consistent arc that flowed logically was Rey and Kylo Ren’s personal journeys in their understanding of the Force. Not surprisingly, this storyline is what received the most praise. Everything else, not so much.

future jedi finn

Look at Finn’s story in the films. He had a brilliant setup, the world of Star Wars told from the POV of a normal Stormtrooper, and how he comes to believe in a greater cause than his lot in life. As well as his story was set up in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it stagnated in the followup, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, where he became a bumbling comic relief shuffled off to a pointless side quest. Then in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, his story arc had a radical course correction as we are tantalized with him developing Force sensitivity, which hinted at his potential future as a Jedi.

Even more jarring was figuring out who was the main bad guy in these films. Kylo Ren’s story was fine and flowed smoothly as he struggled with his conflicting emotions. But he was set up to be the main villain according to The Last Jedi. In that film, he killed the supposed main boss, Supreme Leader Snoke, and took his title. Meanwhile, Snoke was dispatched too early and the filmmakers were left scrambling to find another villain for the final film. This is why director J.J. Abrams and others hastily resurrected the long-dead Emperor Palpatine. As great as it was to see him cackling and oozing evil on the screen again, his reappearance into Star Wars lore was sloppily handled. If he had been hinted at in earlier films, his revival would have made more sense and not come off as a desperate plot ploy.

Then there are the other supporting characters who were treated as disposable plot beats. Take poor Rose Tico, first introduced as an annoying and self-righteous wannabe crusader in The Last Jedi, which led to toxic online backlash from misogynistic and racist trolls attacking the actress. In The Rise of Skywalker, her role was noticeably reduced to that of a glorified extra and any hints of a romance with Finn alluded to in the previous film were gone.

Aside from Rose, the most contentious character introduced in The Last Jedi was Admiral Holdo played by a badly miscast Laura Dern. This supposedly brilliant military leader did not exude any kind of gravitas as a leader, which infuriated many viewers and emboldened Internet trolls. But hey, at least she had a cool death scene where she used her ship to take out the ginormous uber star destroyer.

Then there was Hux, the First Order leader who instead of inspiring dread and fear like Grand Moff Tarkin became an ineffective joke in The Last Jedi. His character was so mangled that he was mercifully killed off in The Rise of Skywalker after he nonsensically was revealed to be a spy working against the First Order.

Contrasting Visions

The fault for the way they and other characters turned out has to be with the scripts, which reeked of being written on the fly. Another important reason for the disjointed feel of the sequel trilogy was the contrasting visions of the directors of the films, J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson.

abrams johnson

Although both men are talented directors who brought good ideas to Star Wars, their viewpoint clashed wildly. With The Force Awakens, Abrams was clearly doing an homage to the original films, especially Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

A valid criticism of The Force Awakens was that it was too similar to A New Hope: both films opened on a desert planet where good guys and bad guys sought a droid that held vital information. The heroes run into an older mentor type who gets killed and the films end with a space battle to blow up a superweapon planet. Be that as it may, The Force Awakens was a fun film that served as a soft reboot and reintroduction to the world of Star Wars for a new generation. It also set up many plot threads that Abrams left for future directors to follow up.

The problem was that the next director, Johnson, obviously was not interested in doing that. Instead he had a mindset of doing a deconstruction of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker, set up as a long-lost would-be savior in The Force Awakens, turned out to be a bitter old man without any hope. His final moments disappointed fans who were itching for him to decimate the First Order.

rey the last jedi

Rey, who was to be the next generation of Jedi, had a mysterious past and was seeking to learn about her parents. Was she related to anyone in the Original Trilogy? Why was she so powerful with the Force? Johnson obviously did not care with the casual dismissive announcement that she came from a family of nobodies. Something that had to be retconned later.

Supreme Leader Snoke was introduced as a trilogy’s final threat was unexpectedly killed by Ren. Meanwhile, Ren was hinted at in the film of having a redemptive arc but instead turned his back on Rey and embraced the dark side of the Force.  Both films are clear evidence that there wasn’t a coherent vision with the trilogy.

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