A Look Back At Space: Above And Beyond

It has been 25 years since the sci-fi gem Space: Above and Beyond first premiered on television. The show was cancelled after only one season and has been forgotten by many, but is still treasured by a select few for its merits.

Created and produced by Glen Morgan and James Wong, Space: Above and Beyond was a military sci-fi adventure piece that took place in 2063. Humanity has just started to colonize other worlds before being attacked by these mysterious aliens called the Chigs. War broke out between humanity and the Chigs and the series followed the plight of a young group of soldiers hastily recruited into a squadron called the Wildcards to help fight the alien attackers who threatened Earth. The show was unique in that it showed that in the future, although humanity fought as one, Earth still was not united and had separate nations as today with armies from different nations cooperating in their war against the Chigs.

The soldiers making up the Wildcards were themselves very compelling and had fascinating back stories. The young leader of the squadron was Captain Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke), who was a career soldier who wanted to honor the memory of her deceased soldier parents. Tough as nails, yet loyal and caring to her squad, Vansen was one of the standouts in the show. Another lead was Nathan West (Morgan Weisser), who was the heart of the show. Sensitive, introspective yet strong-willed, West only joined the Wildcards after his girlfriend was kidnapped by the Chigs. The other lead in the show was Cooper Hawks (Rodney Rowland), the muscle of the squadron. He stood out from the other recruits because he was an “In Vitro”, a human who was artificially grown. Commanding the Wildcards was Lt. Col. T.C. McQueen (James Morrison, who was terrific in this role), an In Vitro himself. McQueen was a tough and decorated U.S. marine who had been through his fair share of wars and became a father figure of sorts to Hawks. Each episode examined the soldiers as they grew from green recruits into hardened fighters.

Space: Above and Beyond was one of the earliest TV shows to use the modern method of TV storytelling of episodes-long arcs. This contrasted with the norm back then when TV shows produced unrelated standalone episodes. The overall arc dealt with how humanity was fighting a desperate war against the aggressive Chigs. The fact that humanity seemed to be losing the war inspired many gritty episodes that explored the nature of sacrifice, comraderie, determination and loss. On the other hand, the show was not afraid to shine a light on humanity’s ugly side and raised questions about humankind’s conduct during the war not just with the aliens but with the past. Namely, it tackled bigotry with a new twist.

The In Vitroes were considered second-class citizens by humankind and useful only for being cannon fodder. They were developed to supplement human armies in a previous war against A.I.s (called Silicates) and were now struggling for equal rights. Many took up the In Vitro cause, such as West, yet many others considered them to be inferior and were hostile towards the In Vitroes. Hawks and McQueen struggled against the bigotry from others as they fought for humanity. Some of the best episodes focused on the two soldiers and their unique perspective. “Who Monitors the Birds?” was a largely dialogue-free episode that examined Hawks’ past upbringing as he underwent a covert mission behind enemy lines. “The Angriest Angel” focused on McQueen, who carried out a vendetta against a Chig fighter pilot that terrorized human fighter pilots with an advanced Chig fighter ship. The dogfight between McQueen’s fighter and the Chig’s was quite intense and rousing!

Eventually, humanity began to triumph against the Chigs and the final episodes dealt with a planned D-Day-type of invasion on Chig territory. There were many shocking twists about the origin of the Chigs, how the war began and the fate of the show’s characters. The fact that the final episode “…Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best” was open ended indicated that more seasons were planned as the war did not end and the characters were in cliffhanger situations. Some were apparently killed or taken prisoner by the Chigs. It was frustrating but added to a feeling of ambiguity about war and life; so the ending was somewhat appropriate.

Space: Above and Beyond was truly ahead of its time. It was one of the earliest shows to use computer effects which largely hold up today and had a fantastic and rousing military score by Shirley Walker. The show did a great job with its world building and set a template for hard and gritty miltary sci-fi that was further developed in the Battlestar Galactica reboot a decade later. But it was not appreciated or understood by many viewers when it first aired, and it was not a breakout hit that the network that aired it (Fox) hoped it would be.

As noted earlier, Space: Above and Beyond does have its fans and is considered to be an underappreciated gem. Anyone wishing to see will have to hunt for it online as its not currently streaming on Netflix or the other streaming apps, and the DVD boxset is quite pricey. Still, the show is worth seeking out for anyone wanting to see a well crafted military sci-fi yarn.

José Soto

The Captivation Of Inception

Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi classic film Inception continues to enthrall viewers ten years after its release in theaters (remember those?) in the summer of 2010.

When Inception was first teased, many were as intrigued by it as they are by Nolan’s upcoming film Tenet because the former film was so mysterious. The only thing shown to potential ticket buyers were images of people fighting in low-gravity conditions, cityscapes twisting and bending, and vague dialogue about dreams. This, along with Nolan’s filmmaking credentials, was enough to lure people into theaters and many were not disappointed by what they saw.

Inception stood out as a sci-fi actioner not just because of its mesmerizing visuals but for its complex plotline. For anyone who has not seen the film yet, the film starred Leonard DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, a corporate spy/thief whose specialty is to go into people’s minds while they’re dreaming and steal trade secrets or implanting suggestions. How this is done was not explained but Cobb and his team used a device that allowed them to enter the dreamscape of others. It was not important; what was notable was Cobb’s personal story and how he pulled off his latest and intricate caper.

Cobb was haunted by the death of his wife who was lost in the dreamworld and is desperate to return to the United States and reunite with his children. To do this, he has to complete one final mission, which is to enter the mind of his client’s corporate rival and influence him to break up his vast corporate empire.

The film spent a lot of time with explaining how Cobb and his team would enter their target’s mind and it involved going into dreams within dreams. Admittedly, this was quite complex and demanded careful attention, yet it made sense and was quite exciting. There were many complications as Cobb’s team stayed one step ahead of their foes. This involved perfectly executed car chases, stunts and an unforgettable fight scene in a hotel hallway between Cobb’s right hand man, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a henchman that had them literally crawling along walls and defying gravity. This occurred because the dreamer at that moment was falling…don’t ask, it still looked great and this type of fight has been copied by other films and TV shows.

Other visual standouts were sequences where entire city blocks twisted upwards into sky as Dom Cobb explained how to navigate the dreamscape to his protegee, Ariadne (Ellen Page). Of course, this feat would be duplicated years later in Doctor Strange. This demonstrates how influential and revolutionary Inception was for its time. In some ways, the visual tricks it pulled off were the next step to those seen in The Matrix.

One reason as to why Inception was so captivating was the brilliant, Oscar-winning cinematography by Wally Pfister. It was best appreciated when seen on a large movie screen or better yet an IMAX screen. Another was the pounding music by Hans Zimmer, which was one of the composer’s best film scores.

As many wait for Christopher Nolan’s next film Tenet to come out, Inception will be re-released to pump up theater goers for Tenet and to herald the reopening of theaters. Of course, this will be muted because the coronavirus is still spreading and will probably keep most theaters closed at least in the United States. Be that as it may, no other film is better suited to be a companion piece to Tenet (from what we’ve seen in the trailers) as is Inception.

X-Men: Herald Of The Modern Age Of Superhero Films

It was twenty years ago on this day that X-Men premiered in theaters. While many at that time knew of the film’s potential impact, its success was still surprising given how the superhero film has grown in stature.

Before the first X-Men film came out on July 14, 2000, there were many prominent and successful superhero films that made their mark in pop culture like Superman: The Movie, Batman and The Mask. However, the splash they made was not as intense as the one X-Men made. Yes, after those films made millions at the box office, superheroes were the craze with merchandising and copycat films and TV shows, yet X-Men heralded a new and lasting age of superhero films that continues to this day (well, coronavirus notwithstanding and causing most theaters to shut down and film studios to delay film releases). It was not that X-Men was a better film than say Superman: The Movie, it probably was that it was the first genuine hit based on a Marvel superhero IP. Before anyone brings up Blade, that film was marketed more as an action/horror film and most had not heard of Blade. The X-Men were different, they were prominent in geek culture and many fans were aching for a big-budget adaptation of the superhero mutants. They wanted to see how Wolverine would be realized in live action, how filmmakers could translate the complexity of the X-Men comic books. 

Director Bryan Singer did a fine job distilling and presenting a somewhat simplified version of the X-Men. This is not a criticism but rather a compliment in that he and the filmmakers (which included future Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige) were able to strip down what worked in the comic books, which were the best characters to bring forth, and knew what would resonate with audiences and fans. 

In their wisdom, they were nearly spot on with their casting. Starting with Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, which was ironic considering Jackman replaced the original actor cast in the role, Dougray Scott, after Scott was injured during filming of Mission: Impossible II. Some scoffed at Jackman’s casting because he was tall, good looking and lacked a filmography that screamed comic book action star. But from the moment that Rogue (Anna Paquin) met Wolverine in a Canadian bar following a cage fight, we all knew after witnessing Wolverine’s feral nature that the casting gods were generous. 

Another equally important casting choice was Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier, the leader and heart of the X-Men. Often, people mock fan casting for being ridiculous and unrealisitc. But time and time again Stewart was the fan favorite for a hypothetical X-Men film. Thankfully this proved to be perfect as Stewart brought gravitas and humanity to the role. We believed he was a kind and just mentor, who championed humanity. Needless to say. Ian McKellan as the villainous Magneto was a pleasant surprise given so many doubted his casting due to his age. However, McKellan displayed the same gravitas as Patrick Stewart and was able to believably match Hugh Jackman’s vicious Wolverine with his own cunning and hatred towards humanity.

For years, filmmakers were challenged by the idea of bringing the mutant team to life. Two reasons were because of budget and the complexity of the team. Their storylines were more mature than standard comic book stories as they tackled racism and related strife. It would not do to treat an X-Men film as a campy romp, nor could it be a mindless action fest. The villains were more nuanced with causes that audiences could sympathize with, namely the evil mutants’ actions resulted from humankind’s fear and bigotry. X-Men displayed this naunce splendidly, thanks to solid performances and Singer’s direction.

The film is not perfect, namely in the execution of the action pieces, which feel a bit pedestrian and low key compared to what filmmakers have been able to pull off in recent years. Some of those fights were cringe worthy! But no one should hold that against X-Men and the accomplishment of everyone involved with the film.

X-Men was not the biggest hit of that year, but it did well enough to excite fans and film executives who saw the box office potential of superhero films. Helping to cement the modern age of superhero films in the early years were Spider-Man, X2: X-Men United and Batman Begins. There were fits and starts in that decade but by 2008, the runaway success of Iron Man and The Dark Knight signaled that superhero films were here to stay and be a major influence in films. 

This was all due to X-Men; keep that in mind during the next viewing of this film.

A Look Back At Back To The Future: The Ride

The current rides and attractions at theme parks based on popular IP are quite popular, but there are many extinct rides that are sorely missed. One of the most beloved is Back to the Future: The Ride which was at Universal Studios Orlando, Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Japan.

Back to the Future: The Ride opened first at Universal Studios Orlando in May 1991 and later at the Hollywood location in June 1993 and finally at the Japan park in March 2001. For anyone who does not know the attraction was a POV simulator ride that used dome-shaped IMAX screens. It served as a mini-sequel of sorts to Back to the Future, Part III, although whether or not it should be considered canon is up for debate.

The premise was that Emmett “Doc” Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd, reprising his role from the films) founded the Institute of Future Technology, and opened the scientific institution for tours of his facility and inventions. Doc Brown’s prized invention is a fleet of modified DeLorean cars which can fit eight passengers, plus the driver, and travel through time. The actual building where the Institute of Future Technology is located houses the 70-foot OMNIMAX dome screen and 24 ride vehicles.

At some point, Biff Tannen (reprised by Thomas F. Wilson) from 1955 stows away in one of the DeLoreans and arrives in the present. At the institute, Biff steals one of the DeLoreans and takes off into the timestream while trapping Doc in his office at the institute. Unable to escape, Doc implores you, as one of the tourists, to take a modified DeLorean that he will remote control, and catch up to Biff. Riders see this entire short film on overhead monitors as they wait in the queue.

From there, riders enter a small room that featured many props from the Back to the Future films such as newspaper clips, photos and the pink hoverboard. Doc Brown comes on a screen and provides instructions; when they find Biff’s car the riders are to accelerate their car to 88 miles per hour and bump their own car into Biff’s. Doing so creates a temporal vortex which brings both vehicles back to the present.

The modified DeLorean was a stunning replica of the car featured in the films only larger. Even the front panels looked just as it appeared in film with the flux capacitor and a dashboard display that showed current time, destination time and previous time.

After the gull-wing doors closed the vehicles “lifted” off since they had the hover technology and accelerated to 88 miles per hour. The first destination was Hill Valley in 2015, which was the same fantastic future showcased in Back to the Future, Part II with a chaotic traffic of hover cars and floating signs. Biff can be spotted in his DeLorean as he taunts the riders (he also pops up in small monitors in the riders’ car, as well as Doc). Biff escapes in time after a chase and the riders wind up in the ice age barely keeping up with Biff. The final destination is the Cretaceous period where both cars run into an angry tyrannosaurus rex. After literally escaping from the dinosaur’s maw, the riders rescue Biff, whose car is damaged and trapped in a lava flow, by bumping his car and sending both vehicles back to the future.

Back at the institute, Biff is captured by Doc’s workers and all is well. This sequence was actually cut short as it originally ended with Biff being showered with manure as was his fate in the films. However, Doc Brown warns riders from the PA speakers to quickly exit the ride or else they would run into other versions of themselves and risked disrupting the time continuum! Unlike most rides today, this one did not exit directly into a gift shop, although one was located nearby the main building, which sold nifty souvenirs. These included replicas of the DeLorean (see picture) of various sizes, license plates with OUTATIME, and T-shirts.

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Celebrating The 40th Anniversary Of The Empire Strikes Back

Today marks the 40th anniversary of what is widely considered to be one of the best if not the best film sequels of all time, The Empire Strikes Back. What was known as the second Star Wars movie before it was released and is now Episode V of the Skywalker Saga. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back it should be noted this film is iconic and highly regarded both as a followup to George Lucas’ wildly successful first Star Wars film and also, on its own. a sci-fi classic. It also demonstrated, both in its story and ideas, how to make a successful follow up in contrast to other “part 2s” that merely regurgitated what came before.

The story picks up three years after the destruction of the Death Star in the first film and has the Rebels hiding on the ice world of Hoth, and Luke Skywalker continuing his training as a Jedi Knight. The epic ground battle that ensued between the Rebels and the Galactic Empire on Hoth was a highlight and something unique in action films where a climactic battle happened near the beginning of a movie. This is something that sets The Empire Strikes Back apart from other films, and also lets the audience know that Lucas was doing something different.

Rather than just make a carbon copy of A New Hope, George Lucas was building a universe and telling a long-form story; The Empire Strikes Back was the second act or a larger tale, not just your typical sequel. This was shown further when our heroes Princess Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacca escaped to the cloud world of Bespin and meeting Han’s old smuggling buddy Lando Calrissian. They then encountered danger and despair at the hands of legendary villain Darth Vader, who carried out his search for Luke and showcased his sinister dark side powers to the extreme. Meanwhile, Luke journeys to the swamp world of Dagobah and meets the now-famous Jedi Master Yoda, who deepened Luke’s training and understanding of the Force. Eventually the protagonists met up on Bespin, but still found defeat and uncertainty at the film’s conclusion.

This is another unique aspect of The Empire Strikes Back, in that it concluded with a cliffhanger ending and a shocking plot twist with Vader revealing that he was Luke’s father, all of which is well known now, but at the time was very risky for Lucas to do. Sequels usually just retell the same story but add a few extra things. This Star Wars sequel really changed all of that and broadened the scope of the mythology of Star Wars and led to pretty much everything that Star Wars is known for. From John Williams’ iconic Imperial March theme, to the towering AT-AT walkers on Hoth, to Master Yoda, as well as other fan favorites like bounty hunter Boba Fett and the aforementioned Lando.

All of these events and people in this film now define the franchise and continue to influence Star Wars films and TV shows. Rey’s journey to Jedi Knighthood in the sequel trilogy echoes Luke’s which really jumped into high gear in The Empire Strikes Back. The success of The Mandalorian TV series obviously is due to the big appeal of Boba Fett and his mysterious nature, which again got started in The Empire Strikes Back. Also, Lando’s return in The Rise of Skywalker was a treat to see, since it harkened back to his introduction in the very first Star Wars sequel.

Overall, the appeal and influence of The Empire Strikes Back is massive and long lasting seeing as how it is just as beloved now 40 years later as ever. It is now commonly considered as the best Star Wars film and will probably continue to claim that mantle for the foreseeable future. There are many reasons why the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back is being commemorated. This is a character driven film that also has exciting set pieces, as well as interesting and thoughtful ideas. The Empire Strikes Back paved the way for other Star Wars and genre films, and set the bar incredibly high for all sequels to follow.

C.S. Link