Friday, May 26, 2017

Knights Of Sidonia S1 E5: Adrift

"You should do whatever you have to do to survive in any situation."

Japanese manga artist Tsutomu Nihei has created some pretty dynamic, eye-popping artwork. The manga artist is the brains behind Biomega (2004-2009), Noise (2001), Blame! (1998-2003) and of course, our spotlight here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic, Knights Of Sidonia (2009-2015).

With the release of Netflix original animated film, Blame! (2017), and to celebrate the work of Nihei, it was time for another look at the anime adaptation of his soon to be heralded classic. Knights Of Sidonia (2014-2015), by Sadayuki Murai and director Kobun Shizuno, is something special and remains true to the Nihei manga. Murai would collaborate with Nihei for the Netflix film Blame!.

Thus far, the first four episodes of Knights Of Sidonia have delivered the perfect balance of action and character in the classic space opera mold but with plenty of twist. The latest installment offers another completely unexpected approach in style to science fiction conventions with which the series enjoys to challenge us.

Knights Of Sidonia, Season One, Episode 5, Adrift is here.

The story focuses almost solely on Shizuka Hoshijiro and Nagate Tanikaze.

Adrift in her orb-shaped escape pod following her defeat at the hands of the Guana Hoshijiro is rescued by Tanikaze.

Tanikaze's Garde unit is damaged and limited with a severed arm following his success in destroying the Guana as covered in Episode 4, Sacrifices here.

Tanikaze is warned not to proceed toward Hoshijiro's trajectory because it will take him away from the lifeboat vessel that is Sidonia unable to return safely. Tanikaze defies the odds to rescue Hoshijiro. He passes the point of no return.

Heroically Tanikaze reaches Hoshijiro's life pod. He exits his Garde now on reserve and back up power. Using a jet pack he makes his way to her pod to bring Hoshijiro back to his Garde unit.

Back at the damaged Garde unit Tanikaze, clearly smitten with Hoshijiro, and Hoshijiro with Tanikaze, take residence and the two work together to insure their mutual survival.

Adrift in space the two work their intellect to ensure survival manually attempting to restore the Heigus particle supply through a type of solar capture. The Heigus particle supply is what powers the Garde unit.

All of this happens appropriately in the quiet of space. The dead of space is never interrupted by annoying J-pop tunes or needless noise. The episode is effective for its embrace of silence as the two pilots simply exchange simple ideas and normal banter with nothing more than their own company. These quiet moments are quite beautiful.

The use of music is minimalist in approach if at all. It's affecting and quite reminiscent of Makoto Shinkai's exquisite Voice Of A Distant Star (2005) here.

The simple fact these two have one another further highlights just how alone an individual would be in space alone. It's not nearly as lonely with two.

The bravery of Tanikaze to rescue Hoshijiro speaks to his incredible character.

So often in anime there is this idea of a chosen one, both male and female. Some may be reluctant and not at all cock sure. You had reluctant pilot Shinji Ikari in Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996). Thanks to director Hideaki Anno Shinji was a psychologically traumatized fourteen year old with serious parent issues but with some degree of skill or destiny.

The number of young male, never mind female, pilots in anime are almost too many to count. Reluctant, head strong, cocky. You name it and anime has it. Noah Izumi (Mobile Police Patlabor), Asuka (Neon Genesis Evangelion), Noriko Takaya (Gunbuster). The list goes on.

Tanikaze is skilled and well-trained but certainly not infused with confidence and bravado.

In live action film, you even have young Ender Wiggins in a film like Ender's Game (2013).

But here in Knights Of Sidonia, Tanikaze is determined and focused if not also in love.

Together the two assess their life support and estimate they have ten days between them. The two work in a very small compartment inside the Garde to stay alive.

Survival episodes in science fiction are often quite thrilling. UFO's Sub-Smash (1970), Battlestar Galactica's You Can't Go Home Again (2004) and Stargate Atlantis' Grace Under Pressure (2006) are just a few splendid examples.

At one point Hoshijiro sheds her suit and simply floats as she is able to gain sustenance from simply photosynthesizing. Naked and with Tanikaze turned away from her the two simply talk and the moments continue to fill in these character voids beautifully.

Breaking from the drifting couple, Adrift takes us back to Sidonia for some historical back story regarding the Gauna and the discovery of a mysterious pyramid-like structure with a substance called Kabi, the only known substance capable of penetrating a Guana core because a Guana will literally stick to it.

We also learn Captain Kobayashi and Lala Hiyama, the talking bear, are the last two surviving members of the original strike team 600 years ago placing them amongst the Immortals. Nagate's grandfather, Hiroki Saito, was one of the Immortals who went underground.

Intriguing, and this writer is not versed enough to make the connection yet if any, but a talking bear (not Lala) also appears in Tsutomu Nihei's manga Biomega (2004-2009) (see image below) complete with the hand hook. So there is indeed some cross universe mythology building from Nihei.

Also, the Earth was split in two by the Guana and may explain why survivors were launched aboard the seed ships.

And when the Guana came they were shaped like humans. This is a very Japanese theme. Think of the human-like creatures in Attack On Titan (2013-present) or the humanoid creatures of kaiju eiga like the one found in Daimajin (1966). Consider if you will the man in a rubber suit. There is something to these often humanoid features that speak to humanity's battle with itself. Knights Of Sidonia works with these very Japanese science fiction conventions.

And so, not surprisingly, Hoshijiro believes the Guana may desire communication, but because we are different and perhaps communicate differently are unable to work with us. This, again, speaks to humanity's own inability to communicate across cultures. And of course with one culture desiring to kill another or another with a hardened, unwavering belief system it makes healthy communication difficult.

Dehydrated and with time running out Tanikaze grows weaker due to an inability to photosynthesize. Hoshijiro filters her urine for water to nourish Tanikaze.

In the end the two young pilots are rescued by a full fleet of Garde units violating normal protocols to bring Tanikaze and Hoshijiro home. But why? Because Tanikaze is special.

Adrift works magnificently well as a simple lifeboat tale for two in the dead of space. It's simple, affecting and beautifully executed. Not to mention Knights Of Sidonia continues to be a gorgeously rendered animation with a wonderful color palette for space. This is animated science fiction at its very best.


Monday, May 22, 2017

Alien: Covenant

"Don't let the bed bugs bite."
-Something our parents and grandparents, generations warned us about-

Alien: Covenant (2017) certainly has a lot on its mind for an Alien film and much more so than the 1979 original, a classic.

There are even little visual nods to the original film peppered on the ship. See if you can spot them. But it all begins with a signal and a lure like that original. We know how that goes. Sort of as Alien: Covenant repurposes elements from the original and heads in some new directions. Michael Fassbender is crucial to it all. The remaining cast and those that remain underscore humanity at its most vital against a backdrop of horrific extermination.

I'm pleased to report the trailer did little to spoil the film despite still giving us too much information as the tendency of trailers is to do. There are still a few pleasant story surprises to experience.

Suggestions about a lifeless planet in the trailer give way to some explanation in the course of the film.

There is much regarding intent left to the viewer's discretion in director Ridley Scott's latest intelligent weave for the Alien franchise.

Why did the crew arrive on this planet? Was it part of a grand design? Is Weyland Yutani at it again? These are just a few of the questions.

There's a tendency to repeat some elements from the franchise but much of it is reconstituted and feels just as fresh as it did in 1979 especially given the familiar ground the mythos necessitates it to cover.

In law a covenant is a promise to comply or refrain with a specific action. The crew of the Covenant, a colonizing ship of 2000 plus, are beset or tasked with a strict mission and a set of guidelines. Are they breaking or complying with them? There is enough ambiguity to make you wonder about a number of things in play here for the latest entry in the series.

In religion a covenant is an agreement or compact with God made with humanity. Much is in play regarding this component of the film. David is the embodiment of breaking that covenant with man despite ironically being the creation of man himself.

This film manages to expertly craft a worthy sequel to Prometheus (2012) whilst further drawing from the Alien life form, the original film, as I mentioned, and the mythology that has preceded it from the original film to Prometheus cleverly weaving aspects from both pictures.  There are both familiar and refreshing components to the newest chapter.

The latest installment further delves into the idea of men and gods and creation leaning upon the return of David to carry on the story following the events of Prometheus. There is magnificent allusion to heaven and hell and good (God) and evil (the Devil).

In a sense we have the downfall of the creators, engineers who created man, by their very creation, man himself, and by man through the idea of technological man controlling our fate. The Engineers create a flaw in man. Both fatally misstep with technology. And of course do these mistakes in creation leave room still for God? The character David aspires to be as much, once again making the mistakes of Engineers and Man, by pursuing creation with which he cannot control in an attempt to supplant man. Another important character in the film highlights the flaw of David and his wild odyssey.

Alien: Covenant is entirely respectable within the cannon created by director Ridley Scott.

With auteur Scott behind the camera you know the vision is singular and the film rarely strays from the focus of its principal characters and furthering the story. This is an alien life form film with intelligence, a monster movie with brains.

Conversation is certainly mixed regarding the film with some claiming it bests Prometheus in some fashion, but it's a different film. Much like the newly discovered organisms it is a changing, mutating beast. In truth, Alien: Covenant provides Prometheus with even greater power as both expertly extend upon this universe in unique ways. The next alien film will likely have the effect here on Alien: Covenant.

Prometheus remains an exceptionally high quality film and one this writer enjoys revisiting. Likely the same will hold true here for years to come.

With age I frequent the theatre far less than I did as a younger man and one franchise that brings me home and excites me is Alien particularly with Scott involved. Alien: Covenant did not disappoint despite its imperfections. It takes a lot to impress this writer nowadays and Scott continues to awe me. Revisiting this film before it leaves multiplexes isn't out of the question at all.

My biggest complaint, though small, over the film was the cinematography or lighting. Scott employed Dariusz Wolski for this film as he did for Prometheus, but I found this film to be much darker to the eye (or it was the theatre?). I found the lighting made things less discernible. It was not as inviting as Prometheus in parts as a visual film. The Blu-Ray may one day change my opinion on that.

The second old codger complaint is the use of CGI specific to the alien. It is difficult to get past the fact CGI rules the day today even for Scott. Nothing can replace the beauty of those practical effects from Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986). Alien 3 (1992) began the trend toward CGI and sadly I think these films suffer for it. They feel rushed in their inability to mimic biological movement or authenticity of flesh. Perhaps my standards are too high, but I expect more. I do. Still forgiveness is in my heart. I would simply have preferred to see Alien: Covenant with the kinds of visual effects that still blow me away from the classics. Nevertheless, the visual effects, including the Alien scenes are still very good and mostly competent just not entirely successful in tricking my human eye and I quietly bemoan the loss of the good old days in this production arena.

It's by no means as poor as recent efforts to CGI human beings in the Star Wars franchise.

Today we simply have to accept CGI. Today we can expect it. We just have to like CGI Yodas, rebooted CGI apes for the Planet Of The Apes franchise or impossibly quick moving alien creatures in any number of science fiction pictures that defy simple physics. We have CGI now. It's great and you'll bloody well like it.

But in many ways the two aforementioned complaints are linked because the darker a film the more credible the CGI in some applications. Thus the two problems appear inextricably linked and perhaps would explain the grip for both.

And While Alien: Covenant does falter too on some rather wildly grand, Transformers-like action scales for a few minutes it is a largely wonderfully solid return. And what I mean is that it veers off into the incredulous for me despite being nonetheless exhilarating for just a few moments.

When Ellen Ripley did battle at the end of James Cameron's Aliens or even Scott's Alien by God all of it was entirely credible. When the marines escaped with Aliens pinned to their windows and acid splashes abound none of the action defied the physical limits of the human body. All of it thrilled and the suspension of disbelief remained intact. Here, Alien: Covenant crosses that line a bit for the summer blockbuster crowd, but it's minor for me. Personally reel it in and keep it real.

But I shouldn't complain too much, because there is much to love with every new storied Alien arrival. Alien: Covenant offers a quality tale with spores more information and a fine sequel ten years after the events of Prometheus. The conclusion to this film is equally solid, but should by no means be an M. Night Shyamalan surprise twist to anyone. It's not about the facts as much as it is Scott's style and delivery here. When it comes to human safety and final girl suspense this is disconcerting stuff in the final minutes. The last act will have you eager to return to the Alienverse soon enough.

Honestly, I'm truly scratching the surface on the level of subtext happening in Scott's latest film, but wanted to offer some brief reflections on a film and a franchise of which I have great respect.

Alien: Covenant is a smart, wonderfully thrilling film with a great, purposeful cast. It has a strong beginning, middle and end to complete its narrative. It gradually builds upon Scott's sure hand for mood and suspense. And it's a film that satisfies fans of this series in intelligent ways franchises like Star Wars have simply failed in every way imaginable. The latter has left this science fiction man behind. The former is intellectually and viscerally alive, incubating and well nearly forty years after its first gestation in the hands of its mother and guiding force, a true science fiction visionary like his visionary first Alien film--- thank you Ridley Scott.