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Movie Review: The Color Out of Space

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FYI: This is a German film based on H.P. Lovecraft’s story, The Color Out of Space. In German, the movie is titled simply Die Fabre, translated to English: The Color.

What a hidden gem of a movie this is! Most of the major films claiming to be inspired by H.P. Lovecraft commit all the sins typical to the worst of 80s horror movies: too many rubber masks, melting faces, and screaming as victims and villains dissolve into bright white light. In short, an emphasis on gore and flash. Any reader of Lovecraft knows that gore is sometimes there, but that’s not what drives his horror.

Lovecraft’s stories create a deep dread, a fear as characters find themselves in the presence of a much greater power that is at best apathetic but more often malicious. The common reaction characters have to these powers (assuming the character survives) is a babbling gratitude that these other-worldly beings have not discovered or decided to torment humanity as a whole. The basic human craving for “Why?” remains painfully elusive. The only thing that is certain is that these supernatural powers have no respect for, or fear of, humankind. We are but their playthings.

That’s what H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are all about, and The Color Our of Space captures it perfectly. The black and white filming and the slow pace is a perfect match for the creepiness of Lovecraft’s writing. An unrelenting strangeness creeps toward you, drawing you in by using your curiosity, until you realize there is no escape, sometimes physically, but more often from the knowledge you thought you wanted.

The film is true to the story except for a slight and irrelevant discrepancy on the setting (rural Germany in the movie, rural Massachusetts in the prose.) Other than that, it’s a near-perfect adaptation.

I love films like this: independent labors of love with none of the trappings of modern movies such as product placement, overbearing and irrelevant soundtracks, and the inescapable cliche of the characters marching slow-mo in Flying-V formation to enjoin the final battle.

Die Fabre is certainly not for everyone (there’s some English but mostly it is spoken in German with English subtitles) but I gladly give five stars for someone finally, FINALLY bringing the great horror stories of Lovecraft to the screen with a professional sheen. I hope to see more.

p.s. Regarding more: doing research for this review, I found the makers of this film are working on another Lovecraft-inspired film, The Dreamlands (Link.) I also found this page on the Lovecraft e-zine. It includes all kinds of film representations of Lovecraft’s work. (Link.)

Talking to Space Aliens: We’re Doing It Wrong

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Arecibo_messageEver heard of the Arecibo message? It’s a radio signal beamed into the stars in the 1970s from the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico. The hope was that it would be decoded by any intelligent life receiving it. The message contains a bunch of science-y stuff about Earth and humanity that’s guaranteed to hurt your brain. The details are at Wikipedia and you can see a visual representation of the data nearby.

Now far be it from me to question the world’s finest astronomers, but I’ve been on this planet my whole life (except for brief interval after consuming “space cake” in Amsterdam) and when I look at this graphic I am dumbfounded as to describe what it is. Is it that E.T. game that they dug up in the desert? Is it some child’s drawing? Or something labeled “Modern Art” that morons think is amazing? Some new kind of barcode? Did somebody’s calculator get hit by lightning and gain superpowers?

If I, as a life-long resident of Earth, can’t figure out what this message means, then how is an alien species going to?

Besides, the Arecibo message just isn’t good marketing. I would have sent pictures of the best-looking people on Earth in minimal (or no) clothing hanging out on a beach at sunset. Unite a beer commercial’s hedonism with the placid vistas of a tourism pamphlet and you’ve got a sure-fire alien magnet. Because if the aliens that find this thing are anything like us humans, the trouble won’t be telling them how to get here, but giving them incentive to get off their alien butts and actually do it.

So let’s be honest. This Arecibo message is one big fail all around.

Wait! Wait a minute! Holy crap! Well that shows you how much I know! This just in! Looks like the Arecibo message finally hit pay dirt after all. It’s a message from another planet! They’ve responded to the Arecibo message! Let’s see what our fellow inhabitants of the universe had to say:

Arecibo_messageDear People of Earth,

We received your message when its frequency began vibrating our holy life-support towers, which caused their bio-distribution systems to fail, resulting in the deaths of 18.3 of our citizens, including 9.7 Glarbooten companion slugs.

We are very sorry to hear that your planet is under siege by a giant purple letter M wearing a toupee, but we will not be visiting you any time soon for many reasons.

First, it appears that your people, depicted with exquisite detail in green, posses at least eight genders. We here on our planet have enough trouble with five. The chaos during your mating rituals would paralyze our fore-brain and leave our tail-brain in perpetual base-nineteen computation mode.

Your planet seems lovely and we are envious that you have two blue ribbons of electrified chlorine gas on either side of your tubular ivory crust. We only have one blue ribbon and it is very boring, but nonetheless, to us it is home. We were however, deeply insulted that you would leave your sacred yellow excrement just lying about in public. Have you no decency? Were you all raised on a nucleo-genetic randomizer farm?

But what really disturbs us in the red object. Our best tri-minded scientists and even our dual-minded monk-beasts cannot compute what that is. It seems to represent one of the fictional creatures from the screech-songs of the wild Ulaniit, with a comical arrangement of the famed twin penises yet lacking the companion vaginal array. Its centrality to your message implies that it carries some kind of importance. Is this some strange monster devouring your people as the Yeznar-Alk-Endro did to our hive-ancestors eons ago? The idea of this beast on the loose makes our poly glands secrete from all of our two dozen orifices.

Though our bi-emotional consensus is grateful for your attention to us, we ask that you cease communication with us at your earliest temporal marker. We fear that this red monstrosity may find the location of our home.

We have a saying here that applies: don’t send us an odor-resonating pulse wave, we’ll send you an odor-resonating pulse wave.


Book Review: The Girl With All the Gifts

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(WARNING: Minor Spoilers Follow!) The Girl With All the Gifts proves you can write a story about a subject that’s been beaten to death (in this case, zombies) but if you take a new angle and write crisply, the work can still be compellingly original.

Zombies are so cliché, it’s just a given they want to devour people and can be stopped by being shot in the head or decapitated. But how did they arrive at this state? I remember a scene in some forgotten movie, where human survivors captured a zombie and actually spoke to it, asking it questions, specifically, why it was trying to eat them. It was a refreshing change from the usual run-and-scream action. Finally, we were getting more depth, more explanation.

The Girl With All the Gifts delivers these explanations in such a methodical and compassionate manner, the world of this zombie apocalypse is far more rich than other dystopias overrun with the undead.

Eventually however, zombie tales all take the same arc: a diverse band of survivors battle their way through the zombie horde and roving bandit gangs on their way to what they believe is a safe haven.

The usual archetypes make an appearance: the soldier, the techie, the dreamer, the kid, the betrayer. As the story continues, one by one the party is reduced, some infected, some devoured, some kill themselves when they know they’re infected but before they turn, and some are killed because of the usual human cruelty and stupidity.

In the end, the team is destroyed or they escape and rebuild the world. Or a little of both.

The Girl With All The Gifts doesn’t escape this framework, but it rises to the highest level because of the quality of its telling. Like Joseph Campbell noted in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the framework and archetypes may be familiar, but the details change. In the case of this book, the details make a very positive difference.

More than just a zombie book, this is a great story that reminded me of Robert Cormier’s classics like The Chocolate War and I Am the Cheese: young protagonists caught up in situations more complex than they can understand and surrounded by adults who seek to exploit them. The Girl With All the Gifts is worth your time.

Book Review: Pilgrim’s Wilderness

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Another day in America, another self-proclaimed rugged individual turns out to be a charlatan. Pilgrim’s Wilderness tells the story of Papa Pilgrim as he leads his family into wilds of Alaska with the stated intent of being independent simple folk living off the land.

Unfortunately, the story follows a typical path. Pilgrim claimed to be ferociously independent, yet he collected public assistance money. He presented himself as self-made yet he came from a wealthy family. He claimed to be nobly religious, yet behind closed doors he was immoral and abusive. Pilgrim’s Wilderness lays out the details of a common framework all-too-familiar in American history: where the image of frontier self-reliance serves as a covering for substantial cruelty and oppression.

To be clear, I’m saying the events were clichéd, but the book is a great read. It’s a work of journalism told over many years and including local newspaper articles and interviews. It’s written no-nonsense, even when it gets personal for the author.

Papa Pilgrim left a path of destruction wherever he went, turning a calm frontier town into a battleground against the government, wrecking the fragile peace that the locals and federal government representatives (park rangers) had established.

The path that Pilgrim’s crusade took reminded me of the recent Cliven Bundy news story. At first, people flock to the so-called rebel’s side, because they too hate the government. Yet they eventually withdraw their support when it is revealed the one they’re supporting is a repulsive, hypocritical opportunist.

I know it’s in vogue to say the opposite, but the enemy of your enemy is not always your friend. I know it’s fashionable to say government is bad, but government done right can (and does) improve all our lives.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness was a sad but interesting read. It would be a great book for reading groups, as it’s sure to inspire all kinds of discussion.

Book Review: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

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The essays in the first half of this book are a snapshot of why Patton Oswalt is one of my favorite comedians. He tells anecdotes about his life and each one is funny but he also always manages to make the telling clever, moving and even profound.

Had he kept that up through the entire book, this would have been a classic for all time. Unfortunately, the second half of the book stutters and falls, ending with ridiculous movie treatments that by his own admission were simply writing practice. It shows.

Back to the first part. The individual essays are a long-form prose in the style of his comedy, where he acts as a sort of nerd-sage who sees and experiences much of his life through the lens of popular science fiction. The flagship essay Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is literally one way to view the world and personality types. In my day job, I once took a test where people were assigned working style types (driver, analytical, amiable, etc.) Then we were told how to interact with each type. It was one of the few courses I’ve taken that has stayed with me through life. In the same way, I could see Oswalt’s take on categorizing people as a way to help proud nerds understand the world.

In the second half of the book, Oswalt phones it in with absurd film summaries (treatments) that mock the poorly-written script ideas he has seen. The concept is interesting, as people who think their ideas are great when they actually stink is a field ripe for hilarity. Unfortunately, these get old quickly and each one becomes more Hollywood-insider-ish.

The decline from the first part of the book to the second reminded me of how I feel about Will Ferrell. I feel like I’m witnessing an immensely talented guy who for whatever reason, is not told “no” by a well-meaning agent or editor and is instead allowed to careen about satisfying his manic energy, forgetting that he’s supposed to be entertaining an audience.

I have no end of love for Mr. Oswalt’s comedy, but this book’s second half soured me on the book. I would have thought a performer would have known to end with his best material, not his throwaways. All that said, I still enjoy the guy’s writing enough that I’ll be sure to take a chance on his next book.