In Search of Good Sci-Fi Films

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-posterAfter going on a rant for the last couple of weeks in relation to the state of Hollywood and the film industry in general, I thought I should at least say some good things and thankfully, there’s some good science fiction that has come our way from Hollywood in 2014 that can make up for it. It’s ironic given that this genre hasn’t always been served so well, and in this environment of safe, generic blockbuster filmmaking, it’s refreshing to get films this well made with great stories and characters. Let’s have a look at some of them now:

Godzilla

Sure, Godzilla’s been around for decades, and Hollywood really botched their last attempt to bring the big lizard to the screen in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film. However, director Gareth Edwards has truly channeled the spirit of the original films in this new Hollywood remake of the famous monster, simultaneously giving us some serious, character driven moments as well as the immense fun of watching Godzilla duking it out with some big, dangerous monsters. The science may not be that great, but then who cares? The idea that there are gigantic monsters living at the Earth’s core (which is why we don’t see them) because it’s warm and radioactive is ridiculous, but then so is a giant lizard bigger than the Empire State Building. Smartly written and directed, with great visuals and well executed action sequences, the 2014 version of Godzilla is exactly what you would want from a monster movie.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

The only comic book film to make the list, what makes this new entry in the X-Men series so compelling, apart from its commentary on dealing with difference, is the sheer skill in which director Bryan Singer and his writing team manage to tell such a grand story, with such a huge ensemble cast, and do all of it and every character justice. This film has huge ambitions, and succeeds in achieving them. It relies on the tried and true sci-fi concept of time travel to bring the old and new casts of the X-Men series together, and in doing so broadens the scope of the X-Men universe while still getting across its core messages in relation to tolerance of those who are different. Perhaps what is best about this film is that it ends by completely erasing the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, a feat that no doubt was brought about by the bad taste Brett Ratner’s film must have left in Bryan Singer’s mouth after he left the series originally.

Edge of Tomorrow

Say what you want about Tom Cruise but he knows how to pick a good script and get filmmakers to make great movies out of them. This film is perhaps even better than most in that it takes what could seemingly be a dull concept (Groundhog Day meets Independence Day) and infuses it with witty dialogue and a clever plot, making for fascinating and fun viewing. Some may get a kick out of watching Cruise die so many times, while others will enjoy the “video game” aspect to the film where your character dies and you start the mission all over again. And the science may not be all that great, but it’s good enough to use the repetitive time travel concept to get quite a lot out of its characters and story.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Out of all of the 2014 sci-fi films, the latest entry in the Planet of the Apes franchise is without a doubt the strongest of the lot. Its immediate predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was a fantastic film that put a new twist on the franchise by showing how it all started. This film however, picks up ten years later, with most of the human race extinguished, and the apes living in peace in the woods just outside San Francisco; that is until they come across some humans looking to secure the last source of electricity in a dam where they are living. While this film doesn’t deal with big issues such as slavery and religion in society like the 1968 film did, what it does do in spades is tell a very human and emotional story where there are both good and bad characters among the humans and the apes, making it difficult to take sides. All you feel in the end is the tragedy of how close the humans and the apes come to living peacefully together. This film has some spectacular visual effects too; you struggle to realise that every ape in the film is computer generated given how realistic they look, with Caesar and Koba’s characters being nothing short of incredible.

Another film that I would like to mention here (but not on its own because I haven’t seen it yet) is Christopher Nolan’s upcoming film, Interstellar. Aside from the idea that it deals with humanity’s first trip through a wormhole, not much is known about this film. Suffice to say, I will be going to see it when it comes out for the simple reason that Nolan has an established track record for making excellent films, and the idea of seeing what he does again with the sci-fi genre is too tantalizing to ignore.

And for those of you wondering why I haven’t included “Transformers: Age of Extinction” in this list, then watch this week’s FiST Chat where Steve and I discuss the series in general. In short, I find it hard to figure out why these films are so financially successfully given how poorly they are put together. Maybe action and fighting robots is enough for some? All I know is that the films I’ve highlighted earlier in this post are far more worthy of your time, not only in terms of science-fiction, but in films generally.

It’s been a good year for science-fiction in 2014. There’s still more to come and I’m looking forward to what’s coming up.

Watch FiST Chat 173: Sci-Fi Films of 2014 for more on this topic.

The Waning of Film’s Cultural Relevance in Society

There was a time when films would make a major impact on popular culture. Think of how Jaws in 1975 made us afraid to go out in to the water, or how Star Wars in 1977 inspired an entire generation of new filmmakers and fans, or how countless other films delivered us quotable lines like “I have the need for speed”, “You can’t handle the truth!”, and “You complete me”, amongst others. So many films became part of our cultural landscape and identity, and you may not realise this now, but these types of films actually came out quite regularly. As such, each year of cinema experiences gave us sense of excitement and anticipation as to what we would see next.

So what’s happened? A perfect storm of a variety of different factors happening together over the past five or six years has caused what were culturally impactful films to become generic and ultimately forgettable. The rise of the prequel, sequel and remake was already well entrenched in Hollywood for decades, but what really kicked it in to high gear was the global financial crisis. With billions in equity disappearing overnight, Hollywood decided to do what it does best; play it safe. As a result, the films that come out today are borne out of a process more akin to producing products than works of art. Films are based on firmly established properties (like comic books) and have to be as similar as possible to what has worked in the past. As a result, film directors have lost their voice in the equation. Directors aren’t permitted to deliver their vision any more, or if they are, it has to fit within the guidelines of the studio’s establish parameters. After all, they can’t have a film that will damage all their ancillary sales in merchandising and the like. Hollywood’s solution for “auteurs” is to drive them to low budget independent films, and these are the ones that come out at the end of the year with a star who wants to do some “real acting” and are geared to get Oscars (but most people don’t see).

The way revenue is generated for Hollywood studios has completed shifted in the past decades and is also contributing to the decline of film’s cultural relevance on society. For decades, Hollywood’s primary revenue stream was its home base, the United States. However, in the past decade or two, with rising production costs and dwindling ticket sales at home, studios have had to rely more and more on international grosses. As a result, studios have shifted their focus to producing content that will play well overseas. On the surface of it, that may sound like a good thing, but unfortunately, because there are so many different languages and cultures to deal with, studios opt for simpler stories that are easier to translate across these divides, and that rely more on visuals, special effects and explosions (because these things are safer to translate well to a foreign audience). There’s nothing wrong with having films like these, but not if that’s all on offer. The audience will get bored easily, and in many respects, they have already.

Hollywood has sabotaged itself on the notion of the opening weekend. Now, the opening weekend was always important, but in the past, it was a way to kick off a long run in the cinema. Do you remember in 1997 when Titanic was number one for fifteen straight weekends (yes, you read that right) and stayed in cinemas for a year? It generated a large amount of ticket sales over a longer period of time, and the film will now continue to generate revenue because it is well loved by so many and will play in so many other forums, such as television and online streaming. Flash forward to today and most of the big films will be lucky to be number one for a second weekend in a row. Hollywood is so intent on recouping most of its money on the opening weekend that it almost doesn’t care what happens afterward. If it opens big, their investment is safe. If it doesn’t, it’s a write off. In either case, the film disappears off screens within 6-8 weeks. How can a film with that short of a theatrical shelf life embed itself in to our cultural awareness? It can’t. It hasn’t even been given a chance.

Television is doing its bit as well. With high end television shows generating production values equivalent to a medium-high budget film (and telling better stories with richer characters I might add), the film industry has had to do even more to differentiate itself from television, and unfortunately, this means experience based films that rely on grand visuals and special effects at the expense of character and story. I know myself that when I go looking for the type of film experiences I used to enjoy in years past from films, I typically go to these television shows because they are hitting that mark perfectly, being incredibly well produced and executed.

Technology has played a big part in all of this as well. It’s hard to remember that it was only seven short years ago that the way we interacted with personal computers and devices was incredibly different to what it is today. It would be simple to blame the release of the original iPhone which kicked off the hyper-connected world we now live in, but if it wasn’t Apple, it would have been someone else. Don’t get me wrong; there is so much these devices have done to improve our lives, but at the same time, there have been drawbacks. Inadvertently, mobile devices combined with high definition content streaming have made the notion of going to a physical location to watch and pay for content only once an archaic thought. Why would you do this when you can pay for it once, watch it as many times as you like, on whatever device you like, whenever you like? People of my generation are still attached to the idea of going to a cinema to watch a film, but newer generations are unlikely to. They’re addicted to getting their content wherever they go, and who can blame them? The model is very pervasive.

And of course, we can’t forget that film itself has by and large been removed from cinemas, replaced by high end digital projectors and computers that provide a far superior experience than scratchy film did in the past. I have no problem with this, the scratches and fading of film prints always used to bother me. However, it could be argued that using digital formats, even in the filming process (which will become the standard if it hasn’t already), erodes the spontaneity of film capture. After all, with digital you can do billions of takes and even fix takes in the editing room that aren’t usable. With film, you had to get it right in the camera in a limited amount of takes. That type of pressure could perhaps have made the filmmakers, actors and crews who made films much more switched on to getting it right the first time. With the ability to endlessly tinker with a film that digital formats provide, there’s no pressure because it can always be “fixed”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an advocate of digital filmmaking, but I thought I should play devil’s advocate for all the film purists out there. I can see where you’re coming from.

Throw all of these factors together and you have a perfect storm to erode film’s cultural relevance on society. Films will always be part of the landscape, but they are likely to become a niche experience rather than the dominant high definition story-telling experience that we have known from the past. It is a shame that this form is not what it once was, but as our society moves forward, we will still have a need to tell our stories; it’s just that we are more likely to be doing them in many different forms, and forms which encourage more interactivity. It’ll be an interesting new world for audio-visual storytelling, that’s for sure.

Watch FiST Chat 172: Films Are No Longer Cultural Events for more on this topic.

Amazon’s Fire In The Phone Market

amazon-fire-phone-reviewInternet giant Amazon is fast becoming (if not already) the world’s leading retailer in all spaces thanks to its pervasive online store. You can get all manner of physical goods delivered to you, wherever you are in the world. However, Amazon’s online and digital content solutions are where it really shines; whether it be books, movies, TV shows, music and more, Amazon provides the ultimate one stop shop for all your digital content (if Amazon were able to get the rights to distribute world-wide for online movies, music and TV shows, they would give the iTunes Store and the Play Store a real run for their money – but for now, Amazon doesn’t have that advantage).

To that end, Amazon’s introduction of their Kindle Fire tablet range was a no-brainer and excellent addition to their ecosystem. After all, what better way to consume and manage your content using a dedicated and easy to use device, that’s thin and light, and can be carried with you wherever you go, and that’s been specifically set up to interact with Amazon’s ecosystem?

I’m not sure the same can be said for Amazon’s recently announced Fire Phone. A phone is a communications device that can function without the need to be attached to an ecosystem and is relied upon more for functional app use rather than specific content consumption. Perhaps it’s a handy addition to the line-up if you are heavily invested in Amazon’s ecosystem, but it will have a hard time going up against the iPhone, the plethora of Android phones out there, and to a lesser extent, Windows phones.

The iPhone established the modern smartphone market and has a strong foothold in the premium market. Android phones are the modern smartphones for the masses and have the largest market share. Windows Phones have a small market, and despite attempts by Microsoft to push the brand such as purchasing Nokia, their attempt as a major third player to penetrate the market dominated by the iPhone and Android phones has been very slow (although they have a foothold at least). How then will Amazon fare in this market already dominated by other major players? Have they done something with the Fire Phone that will attract consumers away from these already established smartphones?

Again, the answer seems a little dubious. There’s not much in the Amazon Fire Phone that screams out “buy me”, particularly over the established smartphones in the market. Time will tell how well the Fire Phone will fare in the market, and maybe for Amazon, it might just be enough to have something in phone space to sell, even if it doesn’t set the world on fire (no pun intended).

Watch FiST Chat 171: Amazon Fire Phone and Google I/O 2014 for more on this topic.

Is Television Killing Medium Budget Films?

IMAX-audience-big-screen-experienceThe Chinese film industry recently held a conference in Shanghai discussing many factors influencing the industry today, but what stood out amongst all of it was a discussion on how films are becoming split between ultra high budget IMAX and experience-based movies versus ultra low budget independent films without marquee names. What is making this happen is the emergence of television as a powerful and successful force in entertainment. The Chinese make an incredible amount of content for the small screen for its massive audience, and it’s proving to be a monster hit.

So where does that leave films? Yu Dong, chairman and CEO of Bona Film Group, questioned if it was actually worth spending so much money on films in this environment, especially considering that most of the major hits in China over 2013 and 2014 were made on budgets of less than $3 million. Looking at it purely in terms of numbers, it’s hard to argue with him. His remarks also indirectly point out the glaringly obvious; you don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars to make a quality film that people will line up around the street for.

What I find fascinating about this discussion in China is that it is so similar to what is happening in Hollywood right now. With big name directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas proclaiming not that long ago that the ever growing blockbuster mentality may bring about the end of studios and huge films in the future, you get the impression that this industry is changing in big ways (if not all at once). Hollywood has become polarised in to ultra high budget and ultra low budget movies. The film in the middle, where there was both substance and spectacle, and arguably where Hollywood found its voice and excited us all, have all but disappeared. And as is the case in China, I’m not sure that’s entirely a good thing.

I was recently watching an interview with Tom Cruise (somewhere on YouTube!) where he was reminiscing about “Top Gun” and his experiences promoting the film over the course of the year it was released. He said back then films would stay in theatres for a year, but today, “you only get an afternoon”. It’s not an exaggeration. Even the biggest films are by and large forgotten by their second weekend of release these days. As a result, film is no longer having the same cultural impact that it once did.

Is television to blame? I think that may be somewhat simplistic. History shows that, for the most part, if you tell a good story and sell it in the right way, people will show up for it. And guess what? Television is doing that really well now. People are devoting entire weekends to binge watch episodes of the latest TV shows like “Game Of Thrones”, “House of Cards”, “Breaking Bad”, “Mad Men” and more. Shows like these are doing what the films of yesteryear were so good at doing: tell a great story, with great characters on a decent (if not massive) scale. And just as with film in previous decades, people are flocking to television shows in the same way today.

The film industry is a business, so unfortunately, the people that have the cash will look at what is and what isn’t making money and go with what works. There seems less analysis now on why something is successful and why it isn’t (outside of gross receipts). Although I agree that a film can be made for not much money and still be fantastic (and a hit), more emphasis should be placed on the fundamentals rather than attempting to follow the financial direction it appears to be going. Films may end up being only for IMAX and experience-based content in the future, but it doesn’t need to be if those that make films tell great stories that the audience will be enthralled by.

Watch FiST Chat 170: Photonic Radars To Improve Aircraft Tracking for more on this topic.

Anti-Ageing Pills and an Ageing Population

vitamin-anti-ageing-pills-healthyOne of the biggest demographic challenges of the first part of the 21st century is the rapid ageing of the population. In particular, the baby boom generation has the largest member base of any generation, which means over the next few decades, we will have more people in retirement (and probably not working) than ever before. The ratio of working adults to retired adults will become more and more difficult to manage over the coming years. Governments have been trying to tackle this problem for a while. In Australia, this effort has taken the form of rising pension age eligibility, incentives to boost personal superannuation accounts and more investment in Aged Care services. However, with ever present advances in medicine trying to find ways to improve the quality of life for more people for a longer period of their lives, is it possible that medical treatments in the future will keep people fit enough to look after themselves for longer, even during what will become potentially much longer retirement periods than what has historically been the case?

Australian scientist David Sinclair was recently discussing how anti-ageing pills may become a reality in the coming decades (maybe even as soon as the next decade or two). The concept of taking a pill, along side other medical treatments that could dramatically improve the quality of your life as you age is something we have yet to collectively process in our minds; but if Sinclair is right, it will radically change our society as we know it.

Aside from the fact that everyone is going to want this pill or treatment, it will dramatically change how society structures itself. At the moment, there is an obsession with youth that is hard to overcome in our culture. Leaving pop culture aside (and this is too obvious an example of this), one place where getting old is frowned upon is in the workplace. It’s very hard for someone over 45 to get a new job unless they are highly skilled or have special experience. Why should this be the case? Someone who has worked for 20-30 years would have a lot of experience to impart on any organisation, and yet, it’s the younger people that employers target. If our society changes to the point where we could be very fit, healthy, contributing members of society until we’re 90 or 100, employer attitudes would have to change to not only take advantage of the experience these people would have, but to contribute back to society by keeping its members engaged. If nothing else, we couldn’t retire at 65 any way and think our retirement funds will last until 120 or 130.

The idea that we could live that much longer also suggests that we could have multiple careers, and even different types of lives. Combine this with further technological advances and you have a recipe for a lifestyle that will be quite removed from what we’ve come to know in the past century. Before it was go to school, work one career, retire and pass away. If anti-ageing pills and technology make us go longer, our lives will open up to a lot of different possibilities. As a result, our society as a whole will change dramatically. The possibilities are exciting to say the least.

Watch FiST Chat 169: Anti-Ageing Pills Coming Soon for more on this topic.

Apple Currently Concentrating On The “Invisible”

WWDC-iOS8-OSX-YosemiteIf you were to liken Apple’s run over the past 15 years to a Hollywood studio, you could describe the releases of the iPod, iPhone and iPad as their huge blockbusters. But unlike Hollywood, each individual blockbuster that Apple released were on their own a once in a 20 year innovation, and they did it three times in a decade. For all the commentary of how Apple needs to release the next “big” thing to stay relevant, it’s important to remember that their blockbuster releases, being so compressed together, was unheard of in tech history. It’s exceptionally rare in any industry for one company to release multiple, game-changing products over such a short space of time. Unfortunately, there are many out there who have become spoilt by this, expecting Apple to keep doing this. For the time being, it’s hard to see where that “next big thing” will come from. It may be that we’ve reached a plateau period, and we won’t see anything for a while. And that’s just fine!

However, with mainstream media hammering Apple constantly with the question, “What have you done for me lately?”, it may be worth seeing what Apple is doing at the moment. This year’s WWDC’s announcements provide some insight in to what they are focusing on, and it would be appear to be more invisible in nature, at least in terms of the media picking up on it. Apple is actually doing a great deal to improve the overall experience of their ecosystem and platforms, and this is harder to quantify in a headline because the “experience” covers so many things.

To fully explain my point, I have to go back to the release of the iPhone 5 and how the experience of using this device has given me a perspective on this. I previously had an iPhone 4, which was a wonderful phone, but by the end of my two year contract, I found it wasn’t quite measuring up to what I needed it to do. The later updates to the operating system were making it run slower, which made using apps somewhat frustrating to use at times. Once I picked up the iPhone 5, the overall experience of using the phone improved dramatically, yet there wasn’t one particular standout feature that grabbed headlines. I’m sure everyone recalls how “bored” everyone was when the iPhone 5 was released because on the surface it didn’t seem all that different to the iPhone 4. But in thousands of small ways, the iPhone 5 was a huge cumulative jump over the iPhone 4, it’s just that the changes were more subtle, and in some cases invisible.

What do I mean by this? The iPhone 5 was, and still is, incredible responsive. At no time do I feel any lag or feel that it’s not keeping up with all the tasks I throw at it. I cannot understate how important this point is – I’m now at the stage in the cycle to upgrade to the next phone in a few months time, yet I don’t have the same feeling of frustration with the iPhone 5 like I did with the iPhone 4. The need to upgrade doesn’t feel as pressing as last time. And that’s because the phone is performing exactly the way I need it to. The other important point I’d like to raise are Apple’s overall improvements to its ecosystem and the way you navigate around it; the experience is so cohesive that you almost forget your using a powerful pocket computer.

My example of the improvements to the iPhone 5 over the iPhone 4 apply across the board to all their products. The iPad Air may not be all that different from a functional and form factor perspective to the 3rd gen iPad I currently own, but thanks to its lighter re-design and huge performance improvements, I’m sure it would make doing the same tasks in navigating the ecosystem and apps so much better. The same applies to Macs; even though my current Macs (which are getting old by technology standards) are still doing a great job, the current models will do them even better, thus making the overall experience more productive and satisfying.

But how do you quantify device responsiveness and ecosystem improvements? You can’t really, yet they make all the difference in the world. If we return to this year’s WWDC, Apple announced some interesting features for iOS, including Family Sharing, Continuity, more control over photo capture, and the most shocking of all (at least for Apple), the opening up of certain core features of the OS to third party developers, most notably the keyboard. These types of features again are not show stoppers, but they add a level of functionality to the devices that make the overall experience so much better. And on top of that, this hasn’t come at the expense of security and privacy. All of these things are really hard to do, but Apple won’t get mainstream recognition for this in terms of headlines, because too many in the media and blogging community are complaining that they haven’t released the iWatch or iTV yet. I for one think that tnew features like “Continuity” are far more important and useful; having the ability for my Macs and iDevices to talk to each other simply and easily will be invaluable. Yet it isn’t a feature that will stop the presses. This is what I mean by Apple now concentrating on the invisible. It’s all these seemingly intangible and hard to quantify improvements that are making their platform as good as it is. Some times you don’t need to dazzle the crowd with big bang spectacle.

Apple may not be innovating in the blockbuster sense at the moment, but they are constantly improving the user experience for their customers. Despite the pundits predicting Apple’s demise if they don’t release another blockbuster product, their sales numbers (despite some dips here and there) are still incredibly strong and customer satisfaction ratings are still high. There will undoubtedly be show-stopper innovations at some later point, but for now, their iterating and improving in the best way possible.

Watch FiST Chat 168: WWDC 2014, OS X 10.10 Yosemite and iOS 8 for more on this topic.

What To Do When Your Internet Connection Goes Down

internet-server-down-time-crashYou may have noticed that Steve and I didn’t record a new episode for FiST Chat this week; the reason? A server switch went down in my area and took out the broadband connection for all the buildings on my street.

Now, things like this can happen from time to time, but it demonstrated quite effectively how easy it can be for a service like this to be disrupted and the potential impacts that can follow. The internet has become an essential service in our daily lives – yes, there are tech-phobes out there that would say it’s not necessary, and in a sense it isn’t when you think that we got by for centuries just fine without it. However, the internet has allowed us to do more than ever before in faster time. It gives us access to information on anything and allows us to connect in ways we never dreamt of before. It can be abused of course, with over-sharing and too much noise being common complaints, but the benefits are substantial. So when you get abruptly cut off from it, it can become highly inconvenient.

FiST Chat wouldn’t exist without the internet. Steve and I now live in different cities, and although we catch up a few times a year in person, we are unable to produce a weekly show together in the same room on a regular basis. As such, the internet combined with Skype (and some other platforms we’ve tried like FaceTime and Google Hangouts) has allowed us to put this show together, along with some impressive hardware, software and web platforms that can record, edit and publish our shows very quickly. If you go back 10 years, this would have been all but impossible unless we had an unlimited expense account, and even then, it still wouldn’t be in the quality we can deliver today. If you go back 20 years, we basically would’ve had to network our way on to traditional radio (that would’ve been amusing to say the least) and we would’ve been at the mercy of the interests of the radio station.

In the past when we’ve missed a week on the show, it was usually due to scheduling conflicts by either Steve or myself. On those occasions where we’ve known we won’t be able to do an episode, we record multiple episodes the previous week to cover those weeks we aren’t available. This week however was the first time we missed recording an episode due to “technical difficulties”. It made me realise just how dependant the two of us are on the internet to get this show out there. I will say though that it freed up our afternoons quite nicely! Going out and enjoying a nice day is always welcome!

We’ll be back next week for more FiST Chat. We’ll cover the announcements from WWDC and more. I seriously doubt we’ll be offline due to technical difficulties, but you never know when you may get arbitrarily disconnected.