What Life (the movie) Teaches you about Writing

What Life (the movie) Teaches you about Writing

My roommate and I watched Life last night. We’re geeks and sci-fi fans and like to watch bad movies with a few drinks. It’s fun to make up your own plots. Our version of Life involved shoving in as many Alien references as possible. Jake Gyllenhaal was definitely an android the real question was whether he was a kindly Bishop or murderous Ash? We also naturally assumed that Calvin was the Jason Voorhees of his species. It was fun, but after the movie ended we kept on talking about it and I noticed that we got increasingly frustrated and wondered why?

After doing our own version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for a couple of years, we discovered that bad movies can broken down into three categories: boring, dumb or frustrating. Some can even be all three, (looking at you Suicide Squad). Dumb movies tend to be the most enjoyable, you understand what you’re getting into and you can just sit back and laugh. Boring are the worst, because boring. And frustrating are the most interesting, because they suggest maybe a good or at least decent movie was lurking just below the surface.

Life was probably never going to be a good movie, but it could have easily been a decent one. Life is a film you’ve seen before, part Gravity, but mostly parts Alien. The film is about a research team on the International Space Station that collect a satellite with Martian samples on it. One of those samples contains microscope life, which they name Calvin. Eventually Calvin grows big and starts murdering everyone and it’s a race to keep him from getting to earth, where one assumes he will slowly, but inevitably, murder every individual on the planet.

Life’s not boring, it’s well made, everyone puts in a solid performance. Like the best monster movies the humans are competent. The crew of the International space station feel like a bunch of smart engineers and scientists reacting as coolly as they can to everything going wrong. The premise of discovering alien life that is the best at killing us is so overplayed at this point that I doubt Life could have done anything interesting with it, but even cliched it could have been alright.

The problem with Life rests solely on the tentacles of it’s lead, Calvin. Calvin is a decently designed monster. He goes through some Alien style transformations and moves in appropriately creepy way. But he’s the Mary Sue of monsters. He’s the best at everything. He’s smarter, faster, stronger than the humans he’s attacking even when he’s just the size of a star fish. He’s neigh invincible, does just fine in the vacuum of space and immediately understands how to use tools and escape every trap the crew puts him in. And Calvin’s biggest flaw is that he breaks his own rules.

In his video take down of ‘The Death and Return of Superman’ Max Landis asks ‘how do you kill a vampire?’ The answer is whatever way the writer wants. You are the god of the fiction you create. If you decide vampires die from peanut allergies rather than stakes and garlic, you can do that. But if you then show one of your vampires enjoying a Payday without any problems, that can’t be a throw away scene. You need to explain the rule breaking, it needs to work with the rest of your world.

In Life rules for Calvin are stated just so that he can break them or ignore them entirely. The biologist who studied Calvin, before he went all Hannibal Lecter, is constantly saying things like ‘Calvin is carbon based so he burns’, and yet he’s immediately immune to fire. ‘Calvin can’t survive long in the vacuum of space’, he survives long enough to drown an astronaut and still scamper around the exterior of the ISS without any problem. ‘Calvin needs oxygen to breathe’, when they shut off the oxygen Calvin is never evidently hampered by this and goes about killing at least three people without missing a beat.

Calvin’ doesn’t hate people he needs kill us to survive’, maybe this one is true because he says ‘kill’ not ‘eat’. Early on we see Calvin consume a rat, like all of it, bones, organs, flesh. But when Calvin starts killing people he only east a little of their insides before running off to go kill someone else. Remember that astronaut that drowned? The biologist said Calvin knew what he was doing when he cracked the tubes in her suit. He doesn’t eat any of her.

Good monsters are powerful, but with rules and weakness that give their human victims a fighting chance. Vampires can fly, hypnotize people, are super fast and strong, but trap them in a peanut factory and their done for. The Xenomorphs from Aliens have acid blood, and razor sharp tails but go down with a plasma round to the face.

Rules are vitally important for monster stories, because these stories are like a game. The humans are on one team and the monster is on the other. The humans slowly discover the monster’s weakness and try to use that against it to either escape or trap the creature. While the monster is shown to be tough and clever by figuring out ways to escape the traps and hunt down the humans. It’s about an ebb and flow, slow escalation, the humans discover the rules and use them to their advantage thinking they’re safe, the monster then outsmarts the rules.

As the writer you can break your own rules, but that will make the audience feel like your cheating. The game is over, the humans aren’t playing against a monster they’re stuck at that stage in a video game where you’re supposed to lose the boss battle. You need to play your own game, think within in your own rules. You can introduce new rules and changes, but keep a consistency. A monster that over comes every barrier isn’t scary, it’s boring and frustrating.

In Aliens there’s a scene were a set of auto turrets take out scores of the alien xenomporhs. The humans think they’re safe because they know the Xenomorph’s weakness to plasma rounds to the face. The Xenomorphs prove how clever they are, by crawling along the ceiling and under the floorboards to get at the humans. They followed the rules established for them and thought around them, making them all the more dangerous and keeping the tension going.

If the same scene happened in Life Calvin would have just discovered a sudden immunity to bullets. Sometimes to make a monster truly frightening you need to show it losing.

Three Reasons the Cowboy Bebop Live-Action TV Show Might Actually Work

Three Reasons the Cowboy Bebop Live-Action TV Show Might Actually Work

Cowboy Bebop was my first anime (and you never forget your first). I stayed up late and sneaked downstairs to watch it on Adult Swim. It was violent, sexy and effortlessly cool; a jolt that opened me up to a whole new media. Sixteen years after it originally aired in the U.S, it still hasn’t lost its shine, which might explain why it’s getting its own live action American remark.

Considering Hollywood’s track record at adapting Anime classics there’s reasons to skeptical. But given both what Cowboy Bebop was and the new era we’re living in, there’s also reasons to hope. Here’s three reasons it might succeed.

Adaptation vs. Remake

The press release announcing the live-action show called it a remake, but if they want to succeed they need to view it as an adaptation. It’s an important distinction. Successful adaptations are about acknowledging the strengths and differences of the media you’re working with. And the strengths and weakness of your source material. A good adaptation is not just a solid TV show or movie it’s also a good edit of the original work.

American Gods might be my favorite novel of all time, so I was both excited and anxious when it was announced as a TV show. But everyone from the leads, to the show runner was a dream team and novelist Neil Gaiman was heavily involved with the project. This has created a show that is both faithful and different to the source material.

It updates characters that were going to need it like Technology Boy and Media and it expanded on the roles of characters who were interesting, but didn’t get much page time like McSweeny and Salim. It also changed Laura Moon, giving her a more complex and flushed out backstory, which helped make an already quotable character better.

Cowboy Bebop was an excellent show, but it was also brief, only 26 half hour episodes and a movie. You could make the argument that’s one of the reasons the show was legendary, it didn’t get in its own way. But a good adaptation should try to explore Bebop’s universe more, expand on the rival bounty hunters, corporations and crime syndicates that show up. By necessity a good show would almost have to.

The twenty-five-minute run time of a Cowboy Bebop episode would be hard to replicate in live action. It’s almost certainly going to be an hour long and probably won’t have the budget to consistently pull off the spaceship dog-fights or massive explosions that peppered Bebop episodes. So, it’ll need to go in a different direction to capture the show’s feel and universe. Same too with the costumes. Spike’s would probably look okay in a live action show, but Jet and Faye’s might need some work.

A good adaptation will acknowledge these limitations and differences and create something new with Cowboy Bebop, which would be a lot better than trying to recreate a classic, something that is pretty much impossible. And there’s reasons to believe that on TV, in this day and age, American creators can do what Hollywood has so often failed at.

We’re living in a Golden Age of TV

Do I really need to list all the incredible shows we have right now? Or all the movie stars and directors who are making twelve episode streaming series? While the big screen is dominated by franchise films, TV has exploded with nuanced, creative, and excellent programming. It’s an arms race right now between the streaming services, the premium channels like HBO, and old media trying hold on to relevance. This has meant that TV producers are willing to give creators more control and take more chances. And with this creative leeway and without the expectations of a big movie budget, a Cowboy Bebop live action show might be able to escape the curse of the poor American anime adaptation.

It’s also about god damn time that this golden age of TV has produced a decent space show. Yes, there’s a new Star Trek series on the way and I’m sure some reading this is will say, ‘but Matt what about the ‘Expanse’?’ But considering all the incredible Game of Thrones inspired ‘grim dark’ historical fiction TV we have it’s weird space operas haven’t taken off yet. And the Expanse is decent, but come on it’s really up there with a West World or GoT? Where’s my space fairing show on the level of Stranger Things or Jessica Jones?

It’s time for this era to get its own Firefly and a well-done Cowboy Bebop adaptation could fill that void.

Cowboy Bebop is  Already One Part 90s Action Flick

One of the reasons Cowboy Bebop took off in the US is because it was both different from what Western audience were use too while also having a lot of western allusions. The bounty hunters are called ‘cowboys’, in one episode a NASA shuttle gets tuned up and there’s a reference to the Red Soxs (Boston represent!). One Spike’s comedic rivals rides a horse with a cowboy hat.

One part of the mix that makes Cowboy Bebop so awesome is a love of 80s and 90s action movies. I mean just look at the intro to the Cowboy Bebop Movie; tell me that’s not an animated New York circa 98? The opening episode is basically set in the American southwest with characters that would have fit in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado. The characters too fill archetypal action movie roles. Spike is anti-hero with a troubled past, Jet’s a ‘too old for this shit’ former cop, Faye’s a Noir ‘woman that looks like trouble’ and Ed and Ein are….okay, doesn’t all fit, but you get the idea.

The entire Cowboy Bebop universe is wrapped in that grungy, space junk look that was made popular by Alien. A whole episode is even an alien parody where a ‘creature’ runs lose on the ship and Spike has to hunt it down. This 80s-90s love makes translating Cowboy Bebop easier. Creators can go back and look at these already live action influence for way to do Bebop right.

Now all that said it’s still going to be difficult to pull off a solid Cowboy Bebop adaptation. The show had one element that makes it almost impossible to do. It was cool. From the music to the fight scenes, to the noir dialogue, Cowboy Bebop is just plain cool. And cool is something no can force, it must be discovered. Here’s hoping Christopher Yost and Cowboy Bebop adaptation can find their own way to be cool.

Dak was an Inside Job

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Hi Everyone! Sorry for the long absence, after the New Year I promise a steady stream of blog posts and updates, but with the recent release of Rouge One, I couldn’t help but share a little piece of Star Wars Fanfic I wrote last year.

This is the story of what really happened in Luke’s snowspeeder during the Battle of Hoth. For the few of you that need refreshes on Hoth check out the links below and then enjoy the real story, the story the Imperialstream media doesn’t want you to know!

Battle of Hoth Part 1

Battle of Hoth Part 2

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Dak was an Inside Job

Imperial forces had landed on Hoth and were advancing towards the rebel base. Luke Skywalker hero of the battle of Yavin bordered his snow speeder to once again lead rouge squadron to victory. Victory being making it off Hoth alive. Luke grit his teeth; it was the best they could hope for, you don’t take out the Empire’s most powerful and expensive space station and get away with it. The Empire had struck back, hard.

As the speeder’s engines spurted to life Luke cranked up the heat. He had suffered through the blistering cold of Hoth and had no intention of doing so again. Heating though, was about the only thing these speeders had going for them. Unlike a trusty X-wing, the speeders required a two-man team to operate. Luke, however, didn’t trust any partner save for an astromech. Take Dak the fresh face rookie he had been paired with. Kid shouted some wappa-shit about taking on the Empire all by himself during takeoff.

‘Great way to get yourself killed,’ Luke thought to himself. Sure, Luke had single handedly saved one of the rebellion’s most influential leaders and blown up the Empire’s war winning death machine, but all that had come at a cost. Luke refocused on the mission, barking orders to Rouge squadron over the comms. He didn’t have time for regrets.

Ten minutes in and Luke knew something was wrong. Dak couldn’t keep from bitching, and even tried to steer Luke and the whole squadron off the proper approach vector. At first Luke just thought the kid was letting his nerves get to him, but then Luke noticed his instruments where off and Dak kept on playing with them. Luke shook his head, telling the squad to switch to the tow cables.

“Malfunction in fire control” Dak said panicked, Luke noticed Dak had switched off the cable control and was trying to short-out the speeders engines. “I’ll have to cut in auxiliary” Dak said attempting to cover.

“Malfunction huh?” Luke said focused on the battle erupting in front of him and trying to keep the speeder in the air. The force rippled down Luke spine as he felt Dak press something against the back of his helmet, most likely the rookie’s blaster.

“Yeah,” Dak said trembling.

Luke closed his eyes, he wasn’t looking forward to dying on this moisture filled ball of shit. “Just tell me why Dak?”

“The Empire has my family!” Dak said choking up.

Luke reached down pointing his lightsaber against the back of his seat. “Yeah, well they killed mine.” Luke said. He popped the saber, the blade fired through his chair and speared Dak in the gut. Kid dropped his gun and fell over right as a Walker blast took the speeder down.

………

Later after the battle in finally in a reliable x-wing Luke got an incoming message.

“Luke! It’s Wedge, did you make it out? I saw your speeder crash.”

“Yeah, Wedge I’m fine.” Luke said

“Thank the force! What about Dak did he?”

Luke stared out into the cold dark void of space. “…….”

“Luke come in, did you hear me? Dak is he–”

“He didn’t make it Wedge.” Luke’s jaw clenched, “He didn’t make it.”

Why we Time Travel

*Warning Spoilers for ’11/22/63′, ‘Erased’ and ‘Steins;Gate’*

Time Travel is one of those sci-fi concepts that has become so ubiquitous it’s essentially its own genre at this point. There’s even three different time travel shows coming to TV next season (that I’m aware of). A comedy called ‘Making History’, an action series called ‘Timeless’ and an adaption of the crime, ‘fish out of water’ novel, and later movie, ‘Time after Time,’ which stars the father of time travel stories himself, H.G Wells.

So what’s the appeal? I mean time travel plots can be some of the most confusing science fiction out there. They have all these difficult rules and concepts like alternative dimensions, time phantoms, becoming your own grandfather, the list goes on. So why do we enjoy them so much that we need yet another adaptation of ‘Time after Time’? (wasn’t the excellent 1979 movie enough?)

Before I answer that let’s break down the genre of Time Travel a bit. Most time travel stories are not about well, time. Our concept of time is basic necessity of modern life. We wouldn’t have a global society if we didn’t agree on things like time zones and Greenwich mean time. Sure America can get away with measuring length and weight differently than most the rest of the world, but imagine if we did the same with time? No, everyone has to agree that a minute is sixty seconds or everything falls apart.

And yet Einstein has taught us that time is relative; things like gravity and distance radically change the speed at which time passes. A minute on a planet circling a black hole might be closer to a year on earth. That is mind blowing; I can barely grasp it. And most time travel stories don’t want to touch it. Instead what Time Travel stories are really interested in is causality. The idea that our actions matter and led to certain outcomes. Are things destined to be the way they are? Or could they have happened differently?

If you think about it there are essentially only two time travel plots (…well, maybe three, the third being whatever the hell is going on in ‘Dr. Who’). Each plot is a different answer to the question of causality. There’s the ‘alternative dimension’ story (‘Sound of Thunder’, ‘Back to the Future II’, etc) that says, ‘yes, things could have happened differently, here’s how:’. And the ‘Loop’ story (‘The Shinning Girls’, ‘Looper’,etc) that says ‘No, things were meant to be this way and there’s no changing it, and furthermore any attempt to change it is just going to make the that thing happen’. Most Time Travel stories are either one of those two, or more commonly these days a combination of both.

The ‘Loop’ story is particularly interesting because it’s wrestles with this idea of fate. It’s essentially a modern update on old ancient Greek tragedies like Oedipus. In the anime ‘Steins;Gate’ a group of eccentric college geeks discover a cache of time travel documents and use them to subtly change their current lives. Halfway through though it’s revealed that they ‘pushed’ themselves onto a different ‘timeline’ one where their friend Mayuri is destined to die. The main character Okabe travels back in time again and again to prevent Mayuri’s death only to cause it or change the location or prevent it for a matter of hours. Just as Oedipus is fated to kill his father and marry his mother, regardless of what action he takes or preexisting knowledge he possesses, Okabe is destined to watch his friend die.

Another recent example of this is the Hulu series ‘11/22/63’ based on the Stephen King book by the same name. In it James Franco’s character, Jake Epping, inherits a dinner that lets him travel back to 1960 for some reason. He also inherits a mission to prevent the assassination of JFK. In the series ‘Time pushes back’ against time travels; suggesting that time has some stock in making sure events happens a given way. It tries to dissuade Jake’s actions by creating obstacles and adversaries like throwing random cars at him or having a whiny manifestation of time moan at him ‘You shouldn’t be here’ . Whenever there’s a physical manifestation of time like that trying to prevent our heroes from time traveling, that’s a variation of the ‘loop’ story, a literal take on our struggle with fate.

In ‘11/22/63’ Jake ultimately must succumb to his loop which turns out has nothing to do with JFK. I won’t spoil it, but the loop is pretty mishandled, both an arbitrary plot point and key element at the same time. In fact ‘11/22/63’ is an example of how not to blend the loop and alternative dimension narratives. Jake never really wants to change the world, and in the end doesn’t, because the results of doing so are so horrible and because ‘time’ as a force always wins.

Acceptance like Jake’s is the most common way loop stories end. In ‘Steins;Gate’ Okabe escapes of his loop by putting back all the subtle changes he made to the timeline and thus accepting fate as it should be. But that’s not all he does. He also sacrifices himself, taking a stab wound for the girl he loves, so he could both perverse events and change the timeline (it works in context). This is the other more interesting way characters break the loop and achieve the ‘Alternative Dimension’, though noble sacrifice.

The Anime ‘Erased’ is all about changing fate through sacrifice. It’s also a great counter to ‘11/22/63’ because it deals with a lot the same themes. Like ‘11/22/63’ ‘Erased’s’ protagonist, Satoru Fujinuma, has the ability able to travel back in time for seemingly no reason. Also like ‘11/22/63’ ‘Erased’ is focused on accurately recreating a recent time period: in ‘Erased’ it’s 1980s Japan rather than 1960s America. Where ‘Erased’ diverges and improves on ‘11/22/63’ is intimate scope. ‘Erased’ is focused on only the life of it’s protagonist and not on changing history.

When we first meet Satoru in ‘Erased’ he’s a numb outcast who has difficulty connecting with people and is working as pizza deliveryman. His ability to time travel, known as ‘Revival’ is triggered only when something bad is about to happen and sends him back several minutes to prevent the event. However every time he acts, he pays a toll, like getting into a car accident while preventing a truck from hitting a little boy.

We find out that a series of child murders occurred in Satoru’s home town when he was a kid. It left him with a profound sense of guilt because he was the last person to see the first victim, a fellow classmate, alive. The consequences of these murders bleed into the present and Satoru breaks his ‘revival’ ability to send himself all the way back to middle school in the 80s, hoping to prevent the murders from ever happening

In the 80s Satoru sees his middle school life with the world weariness of adult. He notices problems that went over his head before, like the physical abuse of a quiet classmate and the sacrifices that his single mother made for him. Unlike Jake from ‘11/22/63’ Satoru has no road map for stopping the murders and is in the body of a middle schooler, so he’s unable to use force to prevent the crimes. Instead Satoru does his best to forage a community between the potential victims, hoping that if everyone stays together they won’t be isolated long enough for the murderer to act.

Satoru still finds himself stuck in loops, but through slowly trusting and revealing his insights to his childhood friends he creates connections that have ripple effects in the future. Furthermore middle school was the moment that Satoru’s social isolation began. He witnesses this trait in the little girl he’s trying to save and by befriending her he starts to change himself. By the end of the series Satoru still pays a terrible price for meddling with time, but one that he is now strong enough to survive and thrive after.

Ultimately that is what we seek with our time travel stories, the idea that our pasts our malleable. That we can change events and escape the ‘loops’ of fate we find in ourselves trapped in. ‘Erased’, like the best time travel stories though, show that it is not fate and the past that must be changed but ourselves. It takes years of sacrifice for Satoru to break his loop, but a better alternative world is waiting for him once he was does.

As Charles Yu points out in his beautiful novel ‘How to Live Safely in Science Fictional Universe’: “Everyone has a time machine. Everyone *is* a time machine. It’s just that most people’s time machines are broken. The strangest and hardest kind of time travel is the unaided kind. People get stuck, people get looped. People get trapped. But we are all time machines.”