Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Horror Round Up: Crimson Peak, The Last Witch Hunter, Hellraiser 7-9

Today is Halloween, which at least for those of us in the United States is, like Ron Burgundy, kind of a big deal.  I've been gearing up for the last week by watching horror movies, which I have reviewed for your convenience.  Here are some movies that might make your Halloween a little creepier.

Crimson Peak

This newest offering from director Guillermo del Toro is as much a gothic romance as it is a ghost story (a point highlighted by the fact that the main character, Edith, is an author working on a ghost story to which she is told to add some romance).  There's less ghostly creepiness than I was expecting, and a good chunk of the movie doesn't even take place in that lushly designed English manor from the previews (get ready for a lot of Buffalo, New York, circa 1901).

Nonetheless, using the ghosts sparingly works.  We're shown just enough to maintain a timbre of dread.  When the ghosts do show up, they're as beautiful as they are horrifying.  And when we do get to that creepy mansion, the sets become characters in their own right.  See the preview below for some great shots of both the ghosts and the sets.  I definitely recommend seeing this one on the big screen if you can.

Occasionally the plot drags on a bit (especially toward the beginning), but if you trust that it's setting you up for some good old fashioned spookiness, you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Weird Knowledge: Lovecraft as Science Fiction and Philosophy

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents... some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age.” - H. P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu"

Lovecraft as Science Fiction

Halloween will soon be upon us, so a horrific post is the eldritch thing to do. And few people have shaped modern horror like H. P. Lovecraft, who has influenced big names like Stephen King, Clive Barker, H. R. Giger, Neil Gaiman, and Guillermo del Toro. He also inspired one of my favorite role-playing games.  I've been reading Lovecraft since my teens and I've long suspected that, while he's obviously a giant of the horror genre, he also wrote a weird kind of science fiction. I was pleased to hear a series of radio stories on Lovecraft this weekend on National Public Radio here in the US; I tuned in while an actor was reading from "The Call of Cthulhu" and immediately recognized Lovecraft's distinctive prose. In the first interview, author Erik Davis argued that Lovecraft's popular Cthulhu Mythos is really a kind of science fiction (see also his essay on Lovecraft).

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Once and Future Past: Science Fiction with Ancient Themes

Everyone knows that science fiction is about the future.  But that's not quite right.  Steampunk is science fiction that takes place in the past, time travel stories can take place any time, and parts of 2001: A Space Odyssey take place millions of years ago and the rest of it takes place in a future that is now the past.
Bill and Ted and Socrates

In my post, "Is the study of ancient philosophy like science fiction?," I explained that science fiction and ancient philosophy are two of my favorite things because they put us in touch with other worlds. Whether you're reading the Culture series of Iain M. Banks or the works of the 2nd century Indian Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna, you are temporarily inhabiting another world.

As if to highlight my point, some science fiction stories make use of ancient themes.  From Stargate to Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, science fiction is no stranger to the past.  Below are some reviews of books that also work with this theme, which I like to call "the once and future past."

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Martian: Book/Movie Review

You could make a distinction in science fiction between Engineers' SF (like Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise) and Big Ideas SF (like Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stanley Kubrick's film version).  Engineers' SF focuses on how we might solve problems.  Big Ideas SF focuses on why we might solve problems, and are they really problems, anyway?  I've always been partial to Big Ideas SF myself.  I'm a philosopher. Go figure.  I have nothing against engineers.  I love the stuff they make!  But we also need people to come up with the Big Ideas.  It's basic division of labor.

Both the book and the film version of The Martian are definitely Engineers' SF, but I enjoyed them nonetheless.  I read the book (see my Goodreads review) about a week before seeing the movie with the idea that I might compare them here as well as offer some of my reflections.

Book vs. Movie

The movie more-or-less faithfully follows the plot of the book: astronaut Mark Watney is accidentally stranded on Mars and struggles to survive until he can be rescued.  This article by Mike Reyes gets most of the major differences, but I'd sum it up like this:

  • The film lacks most of the book's swearing, much of its intricate detail, some of the jokes, and a couple of Watney's near-death experiences.
  • Ridley Scott's film gives us hauntingly beautiful Martian landscapes (see below) set to Harry Gregson-Williams's score and makes it easier to keep track of the non-Watney characters by giving them faces in addition to names.