IT (Movie)

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What it’s about: A bunch of kids fight an evil clown (among other things) and grow closer in the process.

Notes

  • Having watched this so soon after having read the book, I obviously can’t help but compare the two. And in many ways, the movie is actually better – more taut in its storytelling, clearer in its themes, less reliant on odd plot contrivances. But, of course, the hoariness and bloat of the book is part of its dreadful charm. Reading IT, unlike watching it, immersed you in a dark tangled forest of fear, something a 2 hour movie could never quite reach.
  • The book is also replete with a depth of lore, of tangential anecdotes of the city and its inhabitants and their deep dark secrets, making the city of Derry one of the main characters of the book, when in the movie the idea of Derry as a place steeped in that miasma of contagious psychic evil doesn’t really come through. And of course, the interweaving and simultaneous plot threads featuring the characters as children and as adults, with all the intratextual delightfulness that brings, becomes a movie entirely focusing on the children, with the second chapter an as-yet unconfirmed (but highly probable) sequel.
  • Viscerally, IT isn’t actually all that groundbreaking a horror movie. It has all the tropes – CG jump scares, an overreliance on a blaring orchestral score to signal scary moments, characters acting stupid and wandering off alone in dangerous places, and of course, clowns (though Stan Uri’s fear, the Thin Woman Judith, is pretty scary). What sets IT apart is not the quality of its horror, but rather how convincingly it portrays the struggles of adolescence, of childhood friendships, (potty-mouthed) banter, and solidarity, using the horror as a foil to bind its characters together. It’s a formula that works, and now that I’ve read and watched IT, I know why Stranger Things evokes such a pang of familiarity – the It story is a near-perfect evocation of that archetype of youthful friendship in adversity.
  • As for Pennywise himself, stripped of the story of his origins (which might come in the next instalment), he actually comes across as a rather one-dimensional villain, because his motives are never really explored in the film. He’s just a supernatural shapeshifting creep with a taste for scared children. Bill Skarsgard does his darndest to come up with a unique and scary interpretation of the character, all yellow-eyed, double-jointed, drooling menace, but in a way, Pennywise’s insanity is just animalistic – it doesn’t quite have that intelligent, twisted cruelty that Pennywise has in the book, in which he delights in tormenting and stalking his prey, not just through jump scares, but through psychological torment as well. But maybe that’ll come in the second instalment.

Verdict: Don’t expect to be too scared if you’re a horror veteran (I’m not and I wasn’t that  scared), and Pennywise himself doesn’t quite get to the stratospheric heights of scariness that I was expecting, but watch anyway for a near-perfect evocation of adolescent friendship.

I give this: 3.5 out of 5 pills

 

 

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Kedi

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What it’s about: A documentary about the lives of the cats that roam around Istanbul, and the relationships that they have with each other and the humans that know them.

Notes

  • I’m of two minds about this documentary. On one hand, it’s a cute, beautifully composed romp through the lives of a number of cats that inhabit the streets and byways of Istanbul. On the other, however, it really isn’t much more than that. It tries to be. Most of its narration comprises the musings and benedictions of the Istanbul residents that look after these cats. They talk about how the cats have changed their lives, how they bring out the best and worst in people, and how they are themselves people-like in their character and actions. But the nuggets of insight grow thin after a while.
  • This is ultimately a documentary that outlasts its welcome. Its first half hour is everything you’d expect a documentary about cats to be. But it repeats itself and its platitudes over and over because it doesn’t have a narrative arc to guide its progression.
  • The cats are all distinct personalities, sure, but there is a sense of there being little follow-through – the documentary is a snapshot of each cat’s lives, but their stories are truncated before they have a chance to impress themselves upon us – the cat never catches the mouse.
  • The film does make me want to visit Istanbul, though – just because it makes it seem like such a welcoming city, one in which the street cat is recognised and appreciated for their tenacity and resourcefulness and in which they become part of the cultural and historical fabric of the city.

Verdict: Beautifully shot and full of cute cats, Kedi lacks a compelling narrative arc to sustain the many undeveloped vignettes of its feline stars, and ultimately becomes a bit of a repetitive slog towards the end.

I give this: 3 out of 5 cats

The Human Division

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What it’s about: The Colonial Union has lost Earth and must now rely more on diplomacy to survive, even as nefarious forces seek to bring about its destruction.

Notes:

  • This is the first of two serialised novels in the Old Man’s War universe, and as such, can read somewhat episodically at times. The novel follows Harry Wilson, one of the original friends of the erstwhile protagonist John Perry. Wilson is more scientist than soldier, relying more on his wits than his modified green body to survive. And that, I think, makes him more interesting than Perry.
  • Scalzi has great fun putting the characters into all sorts of weird situations showcasing the weird and wonderful in interspecies relations. Many chapters are almost self-contained in how they depict Wilson and his crew thinking on their feet to triage teetering diplomatic negotiations, often relying on serendipity and blind luck to save humanity’s reputation.
  • The self-contained nature of each chapter means that it doesn’t read like a novel, but more like a series of interconnected chapters. Serialised fiction is not new, but Scalzi here has somewhat eschewed the end-of-chapter suspense hook that characterises much of such fiction in favor of making them stories on their own, but unified by an overarching strand that actually never really surfaces in this book (it will the next). It’s a strange read, but not unpleasant. But in a world where information flows so freely, why indeed do books need to be self-contained anymore?

Verdict: Disjointed but entertaining and pure Scalzi in its whimsical inventiveness, The Human Division is a portentous new chapter in the Old Man’s War universe.

I give this: 4 out of 5 nanofiber crowns

Death’s End

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What it’s about: After the events of The Dark Forest, humanity has gained a reprieve against the Trisolarians due to the principles of dark forest deterrence. But the reprieve turns out to be short-lived, and humanity soon finds itself exposed to bigger threats than just the Trisolarians. It’s a big hoary galaxy out there.

Notes: 

  • The series resembles an exponential curve in terms of its timeline – the first book takes place over half a century, the second over a couple of centuries, and the third, literally billions of years. Accordingly, the scope and imaginativeness of the series also expands, while its human elements remain about the same.
  • The protagonist this round is the Chinese astrophysicist Cheng Xin, whose good nature makes her one of the most maligned characters in the entire series. Let’s just say that she’s in a position to make a number of very important decisions and manages to choose wrongly in every instance. But she gets to witness the end of the universe, which might either be a blessing or a curse depending on who you ask.
  • Cheng Xin is, however, emblematic of Liu’s rather retro approach towards the depiction and characterisation of gender in this book. While not quite chauvinistic, he takes a view that societies can take on aspects of different genders, and this guides their outlook on political and social affairs. Indeed, Liu’s 23rd century society is a feminised one, where men of the era are virtually indistinguishable from women in physical appearance and manner, and is consequently unprepared to shoulder the harsh, masculine” burden of having to maintain the system of dark forest deterrence, which requires someone who can credibly carry out the MAD option.
  • Relatedly, Liu’s sociological commentary can seem a bit fantastic at times – he posits a sort of generational cut-off after which society began to “switch” genders, and this can happen in the space of mere decades, which seems to me to be a bit of a contrived way to make a point about societies that act according to their prevailing “gender”. It assumes societies can be homogenised through the lens of gendered action, and it also assumes that gender normativities trump rational calculation, which is a coded way of saying women let their sentiment cloud their rationality – which is problematic.
  • In any case, however, this book is extremely depressing. Not least because of the wanton sense of existential crisis that constantly hounds at the heels of latter-day humanity, but because the book really makes you grok the immensity of the cosmos in a way that strips one of the self-importance of the immediate. Liu’s conceptual imagination is staggering, positing things like weaponised physics, black domains, and pocket universes.
  • But the book also hints at bigger and more magnificent ordering principles that suggests that the logic of the dark forest may not be as all-encompassing as it seems. Cheng Xin witnesses it all, an observer who somehow survives the eons of deep time until the end of the universe, when it is revealed that both humanity and Trisolarians have survived till that point – but the ensuing eras are glossed over. There is an immensity of hope in that revelation – that the species endured through time to witness the ultimate omega moment – the rebirth of a new, whole universe and a chance to start afresh. But it’s taken a long time, and a number of lucky breaks, to overcome the implied consequence of the Fermi Paradox to arrive at that point.
  • The book ends with many unanswered questions. What is humanity like at the end of the universe? What did Tianming see and experience during his time with the Trisolarian fleet? What were the “trade lanes” being hinted at, and does that mean that there is a galactic community that has transcended dark forest logics? What are the hidden warnings implied in the fairytale that Tianming told Cheng Xin? Was there really a way for humanity to avoid the two-dimensionalisation of the Solar System? And what happens after the end of the book, which stops right at the point where the fate of the universe, and of future universes, is undecided?
  • Those questions may never be answered, but in their non-answering, they connote a sense of the boundlessness and ineffable nature of the cosmos, one that cannot all be packed into a single tome. But Liu has, in Death’s End, tried to do just that.

Verdict: Flawed, complex, and messy, but ambitious and audacious beyond measure, Death’s End is a magnificently imaginative capstone to a truly remarkable trilogy.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 gravity ships

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season #2)

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What it’s about: The wacky on-the-job adventures of the Brooklyn Nine Nine crew continue, but this time with a dash of high-stakes drama and romance: Captain Holt is forced to leave the Nine Nine, and Jake and Amy start to get a move on. Charles and Gina bang in what must be the most non-sequitur office pairing in sitcom.

Notes:

  • Brooklyn Nine Nine continues to be a well-written and comforting collection of good-hearted hilarity (except for its ceaseless mean-spirited riffing of Hitchcock and Scully (and to a smaller extent, Boyle) who only deserve about 80% of what comes to them).
  • Character dynamics seem to evolve somewhat naturally – while everyone plays off their stereotypes for comic effect, there is a divide between their joke selves and their dramatic selves – they are more than their own typecasting. Nowhere is this more apparent than Jake Peralta, who becomes surprisingly decent-hearted even as his naturally carefree self gets him into real hot water at least twice an episode.
  • Charles is the most hangdog-sad character in the show – an overly cultured individual with an odd interpretation of social mores, strangely worshipful towards his best friend Jake – and I somehow feel the saddest for him, just because it’s in his inherent nature to be the butt of all the jokes. His boundless and strange passions and indefatigable zest for the oddly fine things in life are oddly sympathetic, yet he is more often than not rendered impotent by his esoteric preoccupations in a way that is humorous but also somewhat tragic. And it feels that there are cracks in his friendship with Jake, which seemed a sacrosanct partnership in season 1.
  • Amy’s maturity and her wilfully blind devotion to Holt seem at odds with each other – one is played for laughs while the other makes her a foil for the zanier antics of the group. Yet the show balances this well, making Amy an accomplice to insanity at some points and a straight-laced goody two shoes another. It’s just one of the comic juxtapositions that keeps the show fresh.
  • The show ends on a bum note – Holt leaving the Nine Nine, defeated at the moment of victory by his arch-nemesis Wunch – and that is a bit of dramatic irony (because we know it’ll end up alright – it’s a sitcom!), but it really does seem rather sad.

Verdict: Same old fun, with a bit of character growth and exploration of the dramatic while not sacrificing the formulas that make this show a comedic tour de force – Brooklyn Nine Nine hasn’t lost its Season 1 spark, and may even outshine it in the feels department.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 Gigglepigs

The Dark Forest

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What it’s about: The follow-up to Three Body Problem details humanity’s centuries-long stand against the invading Trisolarians. In an attempt to overcome the ubiquitous surveillance of the sophons, humanity vests its hopes in the plans of Wallfacers – individuals tasked with coming up with plans to save humanity that are only known to themselves. Luo Ji, a mediocre astronomer, is mysteriously granted the position of Wallfacer, but he has within him the seeds of a truth that will be the key to defeat the Trisolarian threat.

Notes:

  • The Dark Forest has a rare conceptual brilliance – it bandies around concepts with the aplomb of a latter-day Asimov. Indeed, with this book, I really do think that the series has cemented its place as a kind of latter-day Foundation series with its centuries-sweeping cosmic story, its breathtaking ideas about the impact of unimaginable change on society, and its preoccupation with immutable laws that govern the behaviour of sapients.
  • Of course, Dark Forest also shares some of the criticisms of Asimov – spare prose and dialogue, functional characterisation, and a kind of conceptual parsimony to its depictions of society that doesn’t take into account the gnarly complexities of the real world.
  • In fact, The Dark Forest also has a very anime feel to it – it has a lot of similar tropes to high-concept anime science fiction such as Psycho Pass – as well as an unbridled and almost delirious creativity in concept and nomenclature. Wallfacers, sophons, droplets – these could have come right out of anime. Not to mention that protagonist Luo Ji spends a fair amount of his time being preoccupied by hallucinations of an imaginary girlfriend (literally), which other characters take to mean that he has the rare ability of a true literateur. This kind of thing is unfortunately also the preserve of a surprising proportion of anime.
  • The use of hibernation allows the book to skip centuries’ worth of time, which allows Liu to advance epochs to hundreds of years in the future. Humanity has developed a magnificent space fleet and settled many worlds in the solar system, and feel confident to face the Trisolarian threat. It is an optimistic picture, but unfortunately one that has to be curtailed in a bit of a hackneyed fashion when Liu breaks out the classic “underestimating your enemy trope”, in which humanity’s entire fleet is destroyed by a single ship of the Trisolarians due to their overconfidence. This allows Liu to execute the “saved by the seat of your pants” dramatic trope by allowing Luo Ji to come up with the solution to save humanity from the jaws of defeat at the last moment, at the end of the book.
  • Though I don’t quite begrudge that use of dramatic tension – Luo Ji’s secret is in many ways the conceptual centrepiece and the origin of the book’s name. In a twisted but brilliant union of the concepts of MAD and the Fermi Paradox, Liu paints a picture of a universe teeming with hidden life, where the ironclad rules of Dark Forest theory mean that any species that reveals its location in the galaxy is immediately eliminated as a potential threat due to the uncertainty of its intentions when resolved over vast gulfs in spacetime. Thus, species hide themselves, qua Fermi’s question is answered. When faced with the spectre of ultimate and easy destruction by infinitely more powerful species, that serves as a powerful deterrent – try to harm me, and I will reveal our location to the cosmos, resulting in annihilation of both species. A brilliantly elegant solution to resolve the story that, to be sure, has its own flaws, but its sheer parsimonious simplicity is very compelling, and provides plenty of food for thought coupled with a visceral sense of wonder-horror at the grandiose, dark, threatening web that is the wider galaxy.

Verdict: Brimming with ideas, elegantly executed, and hiding a truly incredible science fictional twist at its end, The Dark Forest is probably my favorite novel in the series.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 droplets

The Three Body Problem

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What it’s about: A Chinese scientist delves into a mysterious video game set in a world that lives and dies in thrall to the unpredictable orbital patterns of its three suns, which holds the key to unraveling a decades-old conspiracy that threatens the continuity of the human race.

Notes:

  • This is a book whose merit lies largely in its ideas and scope. It is not a particularly nuanced or sensitive character study; its characters are by and large either forgettable, or memorable insofar as they embody some stereotype – like Da Shi, the irreverent but competent policeman, a trope straight out of some Hong Kong action movie.  But its slow unravelling of the conceptual frame that will later dominate the narrative of the next two books is masterfully done.
  • The frame is that of the classic alien invasion story, but with a creative twist. Due to the constraints of their spaceflight technology, these Trisolarian invaders, who hail from the Centauri trinary star system, will take four hundred years to get to Earth. This fundamental constraint requires that they take measures to inhibit Earth’s ability to develop defensive technologies to counter the invasion – so they send tiny little supercomputers called sophons, etched into the fundamental structure of a single proton, to interfere with Earth’s research in fundamental physics, by zipping in and out of our particle accelerators and confounding our research. Soon, Earth is inundated with hundreds of these particles, and they become an ubiquitous and nearly omniscient surveillance network by which the aliens can divine any plans we might come up with. Liu’s gift is to pack all these original ideas into the confines of a single book and make them sound utterly plausible even as they are so out of this world .
  • That said, the book also lacks a sense of hard-headed realism: its characters are far too idealistic and ideological in their motivations. The ETO, a terrorist organisation in cahoots with the aliens, adopt a religious attitude to these aliens, thinking of them as savior agents coming to reinstate righteousness onto a fallen world. But their security protocols are strangely lax – they recruit via the titular video game that depicts the lives of the Trisolarians, and if the player seems to be sympathetic to their plight and smart enough to beat it, he or she is recruited. It is absurdly easy for the protagonist to infiltrate their ranks by playing and winning the game and then pretending to be sympathetic – he then attends their townhall with a tracker and leads the police to them. I would say that these and other problems (loose plot threads, weird lapse in logic) plague the first half or so of the book, but then the sheer impending scope of the final few chapters just makes these structural and stylistic problems seem insignificant in comparison.
  • Indeed, by the end of the book, one gets the sense that all the events that have led up to this instant are merely preparatory staging, and that the main show – the saga of humanity’s centuries long struggle against the aliens, is just about to begin.
  • This is a translated book. Ken Liu’s translation of the original Mandarin struggles mightily in the style department, giving the prose a very functional character that also kind of hurts the characterisation, because the character dialogue and descriptions are written in very plain language, robbing them of subtlety or verisimilitude.

Verdict: It’s a pretty flawed book in terms of the occasional lapses of logic in its plot, its mediocre characters, and its prosaic translated prose, but the daring, breathtaking strength and scope of its ideas and its place as a part of an epic overarching narratieve more than makes up for it.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 sophons