Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Martian: A Review

So, there's a new Ridley Scott movie coming out starring Matt Damon. In fact, it comes out today. What a crazy random happenstance! Sadly it's not being shown anywhere near me so I can't do a release day review like I was hoping to...buuuuuuuuuuuuut I did, in my excitement about the movie, buy the original book by Andy Weir and devour it in 48 hours. For that reason and absolutely nothing to do with getting Google pings for The Martian, the new Ridley Scott movie with Matt Damon in it, I thought I'd let you know how the book is before you go off to see the movie adaptation with Matt Damon what was directed by Ridley Scott.

I hear there's this film based on this book...
OK, enough tomfoolery; to the review! I actually first heard about The Martian, book or otherwise, from our good old friend Randall Munroe, who writes xkcd:
This is the second most informative site I read.
Naturally I looked up the trailer and lo, it was awesome. Then I promptly forgot about the whole thing until the beginning of the month when I finally decided to buy the book before the film came out, cause I'm that asshole who likes going to a movie and whispering to my neighbour "actually, in the book, they did this..." in every scene. I go to the cinema on my own a lot now, no idea why...

The story is very simple: Mark Watney, a botanist and engineer on the third manned mission to Mars, ends up stranded on the planet and presumed dead after an evacuation during a sandstorm goes wrong. That' really. The book follows his, wait for it, desperate battle for survival (aw yeah, I'm a super original journalist) against the harsh Martian environment armed only with spare parts and lots of duct tape. Think of either the bit in Apollo 13 that the comic mentioned or that part in Castaway when he opens all the FedEx parcels to make tools, then spread it over 300 pages. It's awesome. Really, in retrospect, Watney's part was made for Tom Hanks, not Matt Damon, but y'know.

There's even loads of occasions for him to pee on screen again. 
Now, the premise of a scientist tinkering with pipes and machinery for a whole book either sounds like the best thing ever or your worst nightmare; but have no fear, Little Miss I-Hate-Cool-Things, cause Andy Weir has your back. In the hands of many writers, describing constant problem solving, no matter how life-or-death-high the stakes may be, would eventually stagnate into a tedious "he did this, then that happened" rhythm. Weir manages to counteract this, firstly, with a splendidly witty yet realistic character: Mark Watney is quite simply the most charming young man ever to get stranded in space. He can be rattling off back-of-the-napkin calculations about how soon his food is going to run out while simultaneously pondering the mammal-wrangling capabilities of Aquaman and how silly Dukes of Hazzard is. Weir has managed to create a character with all the background and knowledge he'd need to survive his ordeal while making sure he's as relatable as possible to the audience.

The long and short of it is he's wonderful; and I have a feeling a lot of that comes from Weir himself, who is the nerdiest human alive (a computer programmer born to a particle physicist and an electrical engineer, with a love of role-playing games) and simply adorable. Lookit him!

He looks like Stephen King got fused with a 19th century chimney sweep.
Watney makes all the big science jumbo digestible for us plebs, but even so a whole book of one guy tinkering might tire after a while. Weir has countered this by chopping up the big long sections of sciencing with what's going on back home on Earth. And what's going on is everyone is losing their collective shits, that's what. Imagine that reaction when someone realises they've left their pram at the supermarket, but exponentially larger.
"MY BABY!!!"
You might recognise this extract from the movie's trailer:

"If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it's found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don't care, but they're massively outnumbered by the people who do."

Every story has a moral to it, and The Martian's is certainly that when it really comes down to it, people can put aside their differences to help someone who is really in need. Yes, it's a bit hokey and sentimental, but... Yeah, it's just plain hokey. Even so, it's nice to see someone having a bit of optimism in their writing, and the parts of the book showing Earth knuckling down together to get Mark home are some of the most satisfying parts of the novel. We're all too bloody cynical and it's about time we enjoyed a bit of gultless pie-in-the-sky idealism; I take back the hokey thing. I'm sorry, Andy.
"S'alright, guv."
What about the meat of the book though? The science in a hard sci-fi novel has to be good; and golly, it is splendid in The Martian. I mentioned a minute ago that Watney acts as a bit of a filter for the audience to help understand everything that's going on, but that's really just a round-a-bout way of saying that Andy Weir should get a job as a lecturer. He's a wizard when it comes to explaining the complexities of biology, engineering, space flight, programming, and god knows what else. You'll finish the novel feeling like you could apply for a job at NASA (note: maybe don't) with the way he manages to gradually lay more and more complex information on you like a delicious knowledge sandwich.

"Mmm, science."
Right, I think I should stop there. This book is fun, interesting, and even surprisingly touching at points. The science is understandable but meaty, and Andy Weir is wonderful. That is all.

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Magical Music of Steven Universe

Now, before I begin waxing lyrical about yet another cartoon that I've fallen in love with, I'd like you to listen to this:

Isn't that just pure joy to your ear holes? The very first note seems to manage to encapsulate a perfect mixture of care-free fun and epicness and the whole thing is 22 seconds of the aural equivalent of diabetic shock. This is Steven Universe at its very core; a great big ball of sweetness with a surprisingly awesome chewy interior. I mean, just look at it; the pinky muted pastel colouring is deliciously gorgeous and the art itself is so fulfillingly crisp and well framed. Hell, I bet I could pick a bunch of random shots from episodes and they'd all look splendid. Oh look, I just did:

I am actively chewing the screen looking at these. If you aren't too, you're soooo weird.
Ahem. So yes, Steven Universe is beautiful; we on the same page? But a show merely being pretty isn't enough; there must be a reason I've gathered you here today to talk about this particular curiosity. And you would be right, sceptical character from an Agatha Christie murder mystery; almost...too right... I'm on to you...

I guess the first thing I should talk about is the show itself which, on the surface, doesn't do much more than many of its Cartoon Network counterparts. The 11 minute episodes follow a monster/mini-plot of the week structure very similar to Adventure Time, with a season-wide (of which there are only one and a half so far) overarching plot that burns slower than an epic put-down in Morse Code. It's also got a healthy share of weird that seems to be a mainstay in most shows of this ilk. There are three things, however, that put Steven a cut above its collective peers. First is, very simply, its unfathomable adorableness.

"Fear the extent of my squee!"
I haven't experienced such concentrated joy and child-like lust for life in a character like Steven since I started re-watching Barakamon just to get a cute fix. But it's not only him; either through wonderfully imaginative animation or moments of dazzling emotional clarity, almost every character in the show's gradually expanding cast provides a moment that'll plaster a grin on your face that could rival the disturbing permanence of Joker gas. Plus, the very premise of a show about a little boy with a pink pet lion going on adventures with a bunch of magical gems is the very definition of saccharine (note: I do not have a dictionary to check this, but I'm, like, 60% sure I'm right).

Oh yeah, Steven has a pet lion. Called Lion.

He's the pink one.
Number two: the writing is brilliant; I brushed on it in the last paragraph as a matter of fact (see: the last paragraph). Taking a cue from anime like Sailor Moon and such (I sooooo don't watch that show from time to time...), the tone of Steven can go from syrupy goodness to heart-rending emotion in a second. And, much like Adventure Time started exploring themes of abandonment, broken relationships and loss in later seasons, Steven shares its time among equally as unexpected a series of heavy topics.

At it's heart, the show is about family, and even more particularly about a family dealing with the loss of someone close to them. Steven has grown up without his mother Rose, a Gem, and with a father who, despite loving him dearly, doesn't have the capacity to care for him; and so his custody is thrust upon the Crystal Gems, who are still reeling equally as much from the loss of their leader, who ceased to exist to bring Steven into the world. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Beach City deal with issues from over-bearing parents and fathers who work away all the time to having to work the family business or just learning what it means to grow up. What's brilliant is that we see all of these tensions and family dynamics through the eyes of a little boy, who we get to watch grow up as the show goes on. Surprisingly quickly too; at the beginning of season one he's an annoying kid getting in the way and by the end he's holding his own as a crystal gem and even helping those around him do better for themselves.

Every good kid's show makes grown adults cry from time to time.
A lot gets said about this already, but I'll add my voice to the fray: how awesome is it that the cast is pretty much entirely women? There's what, like 3 principal male characters in the whole thing? And that's counting Lion. And guess what, people who expect the world to end if an all-female show ends up being great; it doesn't even seem to try. It took me watching the show a second time round to even notice that all these amazing, splendidly fleshed out characters (Peridot excluded; cause fucken hell, she needs work) were girls. Trust it to be created by the woman responsible for making PB and Marceline's (implied) romance canon in Adventure Time.

Ah yes, number 3. The music. This is especially relevant as one of the best songs yet aired in this week's episode. Skip to about 1:15:

Actually, you know what, I'm just goanna finish this post off with the best music from the show. I'll try my best to limit myself to three...if I can. Before we leave you, listeners, I just have one thing left to say...

The gist of the whole post.
OK, give it up for Steven Universe, everybody!! *woooooo*

Maybe one more...