Friday, September 25, 2009

Heroes goes to college

Heroes is the show that makes me feel like Charlie Brown. The series has such great character actors, high production values, and such a fun premise, that I keep tuning in again and again. Just to have the football yanked away by being repeatedly bludgeoned with plots and character actions that do not make a lick of sense.

They reached a new low for me in the Volume 5 premiere on Monday.

Claire has finally flown the nest to go to an unnamed college and meets a driven classmate who convinces her to take a placement test to see who gets into linear algebra.

Come on, linear algebra? First, this is a sophomore level course, we're not talking about the seminar in "thing-I-got-my-Nobel-Prize-in" course that only admits a few students. Every campus in the nation offers linear algebra, and it is no professor's "specialty".

Second, who goes to a placement test because their roommate told them about it? Colleges have these people called "advisors" that kind of work with freshman to set up their initial course offerings. Nobody decides on the spur of the moment I think I'll try to get in an advanced math class, one that is usually taken after the Calculus sequence.

Third, and this is what really killed me, Claire and her annoying friend arrive at the placement exam to find that it consists of solving a four equation, four unknown system of equations. Moreover, they are given 45 minutes.

This blows me away, because it reflects the sloppy nature of Heroes for the last few years. Here's the main issue: this is a linear algebra problem. You don't give a linear algebra problem at a linear algebra placement exam, you give whatever type of problem you'd like the incoming students to know. If they are passing out of the Calc sequence, you give Calculus problems.

Next, are you kidding me? This problem might look tough to someone who slept through high school algebra, but making the system 4 equations/4 unknowns doesn't make the problem conceptually harder, and forty five minutes is way to long for this travesty.

I can almost picture the email to some UCLA professor or whomever the show asked to consult: "Could you please send us a linear algebra problem that isn't very easy?" They couldn't possibly have asked their consultant for a problem that would appear on a linear algebra placement exam, because if they had they wouldn't have gotten such a joke of a problem.

If Heroes was on in a different time, such sloppiness might have gone unnoticed. But in a time where shows like Mad Men takes enough care to get the train schedules for its protagonist correctly, this shows an utter lack of respect for the viewer. Heck, even Star Wars: The Clone Wars shows more respect for continuity and its universe than Heroes. If a half-hour animated show can do it, why can't Heroes? It appears to be the one super power they have no interest in.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


This week I went to the movie "9", and finished the Shadow series by Orson Scott Card. Both struck me as having forms that were introduced in computer games.

"9" opens with what has become an adventure game classic: you awake in a dark room, not knowing who you are, with only a few random objects nearby to guide you. The mystery unfolds only when you exit the room and venture out into the world. Of course, the look of "9" also matches the lush detail of games such as Myst.

Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, and Shadow of the Giant owe more to turn based strategy games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms (which the author does acknowledge.) These games arose from simpler board games such as Risk, and were an attempt to use what computers are good at to make games more fun. Each country has but one or two statistics in Risk or Settlers of Catan, while in a modern computer game usually several resources and production numbers exist for each region. But the goals are the same: world domination!

I think this is a good thing. Direct translations of computer games to movies(I'm looking at you Super Mario Bros.) have rarely fared well. Uwe Boll alone has turned more than a half dozen computer games into horrible movies. But when the spirit of a computer game is incorporated into a movie or book, the result can be great fun. I do not think that "9" or the Shadow series are particular great works of art, but they are fun, and their use of computer game tropes sets them apart and gives them a unique flavor that I hope leads to more such experiments.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

District 9

Last day of summer (academic time, nothing to do with the Autumn Equinox) I went to see District 9. Wow! This is what science fiction is for: take some idea, any idea, and throw the twist of new science into the mix. Stir, boil, and see what happens. In this case, the central events take place in the midst of a refugee camp. The twist: the refugees are aliens with advanced technology but no clear leadership.

Naturally, it is the presence of the alien technology that drives the plot, and in our modern world, military tech is what the humans always strive for. There is some seriously great weaponry effects on hand here, the kind you can't see in something like G.I. Joe because District 9 is an R and G.I. Joe isn't.

But even more fun was reading the reviews afterwards. This is not a straight forward allegory simply because nothing like this exists on Earth. For me, that is what the best science fiction is about: when an utterly new situation arises because of the introduction of elements that are possible, but have never occurred. But for a generation of movie critics raised on Star Trek, science fiction is supposed to be a pure allegory for our current political and social situation, without the messiness that arises when things just do not translate.

Much as I loathe much of the Sci-Fi (not SyFy) channel's approach to science fiction, their ad campaign, "What if?", captures the essence of what the best in science fiction is all about, and District 9 is full of what if.

Now to the mechanics of the movie: District 9 is presented as a faux documentary, and that makes the special effects even more important. They've imported several important ideas. First, effects shouldn't look too good. You can barely see the mothership in some shots because of the haze over Johannesborg. That's a good thing, as it makes the effects seem much more real.

Also, sometimes the camera catches the action, sometimes it doesn't. This keeps the viewer off balance, and is a visual clue that perhaps that this is not all that the viewer is missing.

The story contains a wonderful expository style. The "documentarians" assume the viewer knows the basics of the story already, and so skips over details that someone in the world of the film would already know. This means that the information that is presented comes at a breakneck pace, and not always in the form you expect. For instance, the only clue to the viewer that the aliens landed in 1982? A quick video code shown on inserted footage to the documentary.

Rating: 5 out of 5