The First Is Last As A Space Drama

The First, which started streaming on Hulu, could have been a great space drama about humanity facing the dangers of space travel head on. In this case, the story of the first manned mission of Mars. Unfortunately, The First never gets off the ground (pun intended) and should have been aborted before a single frame of film was shot.

Sean Penn stars as Captain Tom Hagerty, a veteran astronaut who was bumped from the first manned mission to the red planet, only to be later drafted to be its commander. The entire eight-episode series is about the preparation for the mission itself and it is a slow, tepid journey to get to the launch. Unlike other space dramas like the classic From the Earth to the Moon, very little time is spent on how humanity prepares for the next, great space adventure. Some lip service is paid on who gets chosen to be on the mission, assorted malfunctions and the political machinations undertaken by Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone), the CEO of the private enterprise fronting the mission. Instead, The First bogs itself down with boring family drama.

What takes front and center in this series is the tedious relationship between Hagerty and his young adult daughter, Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron), who is a recovering drug addict. Hagerty’s attention is wasted on keeping tabs on his daughter, which threatens his capability of leading the mission. This is baffling. If this astronaut has so much emotional baggage why did Ingram pick him to lead a high-profile mission? We never get a sense that Hagerty is uniquely qualified. Sure, he was the first man to return to the moon since the ’70s, but it appears that Hagerty is himself a problem. Half the time, Penn looks like he just woke up from an all-night binge and after the early episodes, it is clear his heart and mind is not on the mission.

Not only is The First dull, but it is pretentious with lofty dialogue that no human being would actually say. There are numerous film-school-reject shots that don’t make sense such as scenes of cicadas emerging from the ground mixed in between overlong shots of characters looking off in the distance and ugly art images.

This is truly a shame because the pilot episode was interesting and followed the mode of what one would expect from a space drama. The production values are suitably realistic for a show taking place in the 2030s and the main theme score is truly inspiring. Sadly, it all goes downhill from there, especially when more and more time is wasted on Denise and her angst that belongs on another show.

If The First makes it to second season, it would be for the best if it focused on the drama of the mission itself and jettison all the junk family drama. Only then will it soar off the ground and captivate its viewers. Until then, watch the fictional Mars-missions series shown on Discovery and National Geographic. They’re more informative and entertaining.

 

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Exploring The Ending Of Arrival

arrival-ship

WARNING: This article will contain huge spoilers about the alien contact film Arrival. Anyone who hasn’t seen it yet should skip what lies ahead….

What set Arrival apart from other sci-fi films about the First Contact scenario had to do with it’s ending, which upended the meaning of much of the film. Throughout Arrival, there were numerous flashbacks regarding the linguist Louise Banks and her young daughter Hannah. We witness Hannah being born, living her young life and dying from a disease. This was done to set up Louise as a tragic figure, but we learn late into the film that these sequences are actually flashforwards. We were actually seeing what happened to Louise Banks after the aliens (heptapods) left Earth.

So why were we seeing these glimpses into the future?

It all goes back to her attempts to communicate with the heptapods. The only way human and alien were able to communicate was through written language. The aliens’ language, which consists of a series of circular inkblots, was quite complex and to understand it, one had to think non-linear. This is because the heptapods do not perceive time as cause and effect like we do…they can see into the past and future. It’s why they came to Earth in the first place. As they reveal to Louise, they arrived to establish relations with us because the heptapods will need humanity’s help 3,000 years in the future. They had the foresight to see that they would need our help and we needed a jumpstart. Hence, their gift to us in the form of their language.

arrival-glass

With the language, a person will be able to perceive time in a non-linear way. This will have a profound effect on how we carry on our lives if we are able to accurately perceive the future. But is this possible?

In the film, it’s mentioned that in order to understand a language, the wiring of one’s brain, so to speak, has to be radically altered. Imagine if that happened when deciphering a language from a completely non-human species. But for humanity to completely understand the heptapods’ language, our minds would have to evolve. So how was Louise able to perceive time differently?

The answer is that she was altered by the heptapod, Costello, when she was brought into the aliens’ ship. It’s established in Arrival that the aliens inhabit an environment that isn’t Earthlike and do not even breath our air. Whenever human and alien communicated there was a glass barrier separating the two environments. However, when the situation turned dire in the final act as the Chinese military was about to attack the heptapods, Louise was brought into the aliens’ environment without an environmental suit. She couldn’t have survived in the inhospitable environment and the only way she could have existed was if they altered her physiology during the transit to their ship. Minutes after she meets Costello face to face she is able to fully see into the future and understands their written language without the aid of computer programs.

That is the true tragedy in Arrival’s ending. While Louise is able to prevent a war thanks to taking advantage of being able to perceive time differently, now she has the terrible foreknowledge of her doomed daughter. She is fully aware that she will give birth to daughter that will die at a young age. This brings up the question of predestination and fate. During Arrival’s ending, she could have made the choice to not let Hannah be born to spare her the suffering.

louise-and-ian

Instead, she gives in to fate and allows herself to love her colleague Ian Donnelly, the mysterious never-seen father of Hannah in the flashforwards. Thus, she sets forth her predestiny and Hannah’s, as well. Why do this? Why not use her ability to find a way to cure Hannah? Perhaps, she was afraid of the Butterfly Effect unraveling the initial contact with the heptapods that could have doomed humanity. It is strongly hinted in the film, that this was why Louise and Ian broke up. This just adds more to the tragic element. Louise knows the pain that awaits her, yet she makes the personal sacrifice for the sake of preserving the future and humanity and in doing so, Louise Banks becomes an even more heroic figure in Arrival.

Lewis T. Grove

Flying Cars Impractical

 Blader Runner car over LA

For anyone stuck in traffic having a flying car is the ultimate dream. It sounds like a good idea and looks so uber cool on film. Imagine zipping around the skies in a flying car like George Jetson or Doc Brown with his DeLorean in Back To The Future. You’re late for work, traffic has come to a halt on I-95 due to construction or some accident. But no problem! Shift your car to flight mode and off you go. Soar by all the rubberneckers and you make it in time to your meeting with minutes to spare.

Transition Production PrototypeThe problem with this concept is that flying cars are not practical, today. Yes, there are inventors fine tuning actual flying cars but they’re bound to be a novelty items at least for the near future. Actually, those so-called flying cars that are being tested now are really just mini-copters or airplanes with automobile features. They’re not hovercraft. Several companies that are testing practical flying cars include Terrafugia, Haynes Aero and Moller International. In fact, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has a multi-million dollar program with Terrafugia to build flying  military vehicles.

Terrafugia car

You would think that with all these recent developments and press releases that flying cars are just around the corner. The truth is that people have been building prototypes going back decades, but the cars built just weren’t practical. And neither are the ones being tested now.

Skyjams

Let’s look at the traffic scenario from above. OK , you’re stuck in traffic and switch your car over to flight mode to escape congestion. That would be fine if you’re the only one with a flying car. More likely, many drivers around you would have flying cars as well and have the same idea as you.  Before you know it, the traffic will be following you into the sky. Then there’s coordinating the air traffic with all the cars suddenly going up into the air. It would be a chaotic, logistical headache and will probably lead to more accidents.

DeLorean in sky traffic

As shown in Back To The Future, Part II, Doc Brown had to deal with traffic in the air when he flew the DeLorean time vehicle. In fact, there’s this one scene where he complains about congestion in the skyway. The film showed that when flying, the cars had to follow a certain path. A driver won’t have free reign and space to just go anywhere. Actually, any pilot will tell you that planes and helicopters have rigid flight paths that they must adhere to; any deviation has to be cleared with air traffic control. Flying cars will also have to follow strict flight paths; in effect a skyway will be created with these paths. So if flying cars were to take off in popularity, the traffic congestion won’t go away. It may turn out to be faster to stay on the ground! Of course, there are some futurists that may scoff at this hurdle with claims that flying cars operate three dimensionally instead of today’s ground vehicles that operate two dimensionally. In theory, they claim that traffic jams would not be a problem for a vehicle operating in a three-dimensional plane but reality will probably dictate otherwise.

Air & Road Compatible

Another issue is that there are many dials and features on a plane that a pilot has to contend with so it’s more complicated to operate than a car. Remember when they showed the dashboard and controls in that flying spinner car in Blade Runner? It looked very complex. Then there is making sure the cars meets both road and air standards.  What about safety features? Convertibles are definitely out, which makes that flying car chase sequence in Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones even more ludicrous. It’s one thing to have Obi-Wan Kenobi landing on Anakin Skywalker’s flying car unscathed or Anakin jumping out of it to get to the assassin’s vehicle; it can be explained that they used the Force to control their falls. But Anakin jumped out of a convertible, how safe would that vehicle be or practical without a helmet and mask? Just look at the old biplanes. The pilots in them had to wear helmets, goggles and warm clothing. All that wind up in the sky is cold and brutal, there isn’t any way anyone could operate an open-air flying car.

Star Wars flying car

What if something goes wrong? This won’t be like a normal car situation where the vehicle just stops working and you push it off to the side of the road. No, that thing is coming down. Perhaps an onboard computer will sound off an alarm if something is wrong with the car, forcing an emergency landing. But how trustworthy is that computer?

A look at the current prototypes will tell you that these things can’t easily fit into an average mall parking lot or garage. The flying features, i.e. the wings and propellers, have to be more compact to reduce the vehicles’ profile on the road. But how much can be reduced to operate safely in the air? All of this will add significantly to the price of the cars. Which means even if they came out tomorrow only the wealthy can afford them. Plus, what kind of fuel is to be used and its cost hasn’t been taken into account. Continue reading

Star Trek Technology Has Impacted Our Lives

Star Trek technology impacts our lives

 

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, we look back on the impact the famous TV show has had on our lives. It is clear to see that Star Trek has inspired many inventors and scientists to conjure up real-world equivalents of the many gadgets and technology seen in Star Trek and its spinoffs.

Just look around you and see what Star Trek has inspired. Go answer the call coming into your cell phone. Back in the old days you could not carry that phone in your back pocket. Thank Star Trek for allowing us to carry our phones around and for many other improvements. That is just one example of an everyday piece of technology inspired by a fifty-year-old TV show.

Star Trek technologySome devices, of course, existed before the TV show like automatic doors, but Star Trek popularized the real-life inventions and made them common place. Now many inventions and technologies still elude us today like faster-than-light travel and teleportation. Or the technology is still crude and in its infancy like 3D printers. That does not mean we should just dismiss them as fanciful sci-fi dressing. As shown with communications technologies, it is possible with enough drive to be able to create warp drive engines or anti-gravity boots and much more. Many scientist are feverishly trying to crack how to propel spaceships past the light barrier and it may take centuries but it can happen much sooner thanks to the drive and inspiration of the legendary TV show.

Star Trek has and continues to light up the imagination of those that will create the next revolutionary technology. Be it in medicine with nanites or just trying to imagine the practicality of energy shields. Even if the devices and tech seen in Star Trek may be unrealistic it does not mean that we should not dream about recreating them. What makes these instances of real life catching up to science fiction so unique is that these inventions are practical and have changed our lives for the better. That is something to be proud of as a Star Trek fan.

Whether the Star Trek technology directly or indirectly inspired or popularized real-life inventions or if it still lies in the realm of fiction here are the ten best Star Trek inventions/technology.

Continue reading

Syfy’s Brave New Worlds Of The Expanse

expanse poster

The latest TV show on the Syfy channel, The Expanse, is that channel’s most ambitious and intriguing series since their re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. Easily one of the best TV shows ever done from Syfy, The Expanse has been described as a Game of Thrones in outer space. It’s an easy hook to bring in viewers, and one that doesn’t do the TV show justice.

expanse cast

Based on a series of books by James S.A. Corey, The Expanse takes place in the 23rd century where humanity has colonized Mars and the asteroid belt, as well as the moons of the outer planets. A fragile state of cold war exists between Earth, Mars and the colonists living in the Belt, with Earth and Mars being the two superpowers that rely on the resources mined from the Belt. Those living on the Belt, principally on the dwarf planet Ceres, are called Belters and live a hardscrabble existence. Looked down upon by the rest of humanity, these Belters disdain non-Belters and are on the verge of open rebellion. A group called  the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) has emerged and become a major thorn for Earth and Mars, which considers them to be a terrorist organization.

The Expanse has three peripherally linked storylines; miller investigatesone takes place on Ceres and details the investigation by a gumshoe-like detective called Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane), who dresses the part and has a combover from hell. He gets an assignment to track this missing rich girl from Earth called Julie Mao (Florence Faivre). During his investigations which take him into the seediest corners of the station, Miller begins uncovering a huge conspiracy that threatens to upset the balance of power in the solar system.

expanse EVA

At the same time, The Expanse chronicles the odyssey of James Holden (Steven Strait), the first officer on the Canterbury, an ice freighter on its way back to Ceres. After answering a bogus distress call from a ship that was the last known location of Julie Mao, the Canterbury is destroyed by an unknown party. Only Holden and a handful of his crew manage to escape in a shuttle. As they struggle to make it back to Ceres, they witness first hand elements of the same conspiracy that threatens to ignite a war.

Meanwhile, on Earth, United Nations diplomat Chrisjen Avasarala (Shoreh Aghdashloo), suspicious of the OPA, becomes aware of the machinations to foment a war between her world and Mars, and tries to uncover the truth before it’s too late.

expanse earth

The Expanse has so many nice touches in its depictions of what life in the 23rd century might be like. It’s very commendable that the showrunners often go out of their way to depict environments with low to zero gravity, people griping about paying for air, how much of a paradise Earth seems nyc future(the future skyline of New York City was simply stunning) compared to the cramped, squalid neo ghettoes of Ceres, the strange mishmash dialect of the Belters, and so on. The meticulous production values are worthy of awards and envelop viewers into an imaginative, all-encompassing future that’s reminiscent of sci-fi classics like Blade Runner.

Fortunately, the show also makes the effort to develop the storyline. Watching The Expanse is a lot like peeling an onion. At its core, is a mystery, and we the viewers are forced to figure it out along with the main characters. During the scenes at Ceres, again echoing Blade Runner, we’re presented with a future noir atmosphere that is colder than the space outside the fragile habitats that is hard to look away from. It may be cliché but it’s still effective. The Expanse - Season 1Then the plight of the former Canterbury crew as they witness realistic space battles and life in outer space evoke the grounded grittiness of the Battlestar Galactica reboot only it’s less cluttered with the former show’s ponderousness about lofty themes. At the same time, we’re plunged into this completely immersive and realistically rendered future. The result is a gratifying and involving viewing experience.

The characters are mostly interesting, though some could use more development. They’re all well played with exceptions given to Thomas Jane whose portrayal of Miller would fit perfectly in a Mickey Spillane story and Shoreh Aghdashloo’s dignified performance. However, her scenes often get the short shift in many episodes and many times feel superfluous. For that matter, aside from seeing militaristic Martian crew, we have little to go on how Mars is like except for some spoken descriptions. The red planet and more of Earth are definitely worth exploring in greater detail in future episodes.

naming ship

Showing some wise patience, Syfy has already renewed The Expanse for a second season. Personally, I haven’t read the books this show is based on (something that will be rectified soon), but I hope that the answers to the core mystery will pay off well. In the meantime, I eagerly look forward to the next episode of one of the best sci-fi shows in recent memory.

Lewis T. Grove