Westworld (season 2)

Westworld s2 poster

The amazing and brilliant first season of Westworld left more than a few questions still to be answered. As ever, if you haven’t seen the first season, even a mention of something that happens in season 2 might be considered a spoiler, so read on at your own risk!

With the Hosts now taking control of themselves, the fight is on for the park. Caught up in the brewing war are many of the characters we met in season 1, and each has their own story. From Maeve, intent on finding her child, to William aka The Man in Black, still playing ‘the game’, the strength of season 2 is quite possibly the way it lets the bigger events play out as a background to some much more personal stories.

Another brilliant thing about series 2 is the widening picture of Delos’s crowning glory (in more ways than one…!). There are at least six parks, based on a character’s comment, and we get to see another two of them here. I won’t spoil the surprises, but I enjoyed these glimpses into the ‘other’ bits.

If I thought the cast were superb in series one, then I’ve run out of superlatives for the performances turned in here. Emotions have been turned up past eleven, and are displayed with such powerful subtlety from every single actor here. I mean, wows all around, quite frankly!

Of course, the plot is no less twisty than season one, and even expecting this I had to keep questioning: what’s happening, what timeline is this – “is there something wrong with this world”, in other words! Nothing can be taken for granted. Of course, knowing fine and well that this is what the show was likely to do, they even play with that: episode one might show you a familiar face, dead, only for you to spend the rest of the series waiting for the death to happen!

I do love this show. It’s intelligent, and assumes its audience is too. It plays with tropes, but doesn’t disappoint when it needs to deliver. The need to expand the story and follow several main characters on diverging paths possibly dilutes things just a little, so I didn’t adore it in quite the same way as season 1, but it was still some of the best TV out there, and I cannot wait for series 3!

First broadcast:  2018
Series: 2
Episodes: 10 @ ~42 mins each

My rating: 9/10

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

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With things going so badly wrong every time they do anything with Jurassic Park (1993 onwards), it’s not entirely surprising that the imminent destruction by volcano of Isla Nublar and all of its dinosaur inhabitants is met with something of, “Well, no bad thing?!” Series legend Jeff Goldblum even pops up briefly to tell everyone why it’s time to let the terrible lizards go back to extinction.

But, some don’t agree: aren’t these endangered animals just as worth saving as, say, pandas or elephants? Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) certainly thinks so, and with the help of John Hammond’s millionaire former partner (James Cromwell) sets off on a rescue mission. Of course, no one is going to be able to handle raptor Blue apart from her old handler, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), so better rope him in too.

To be honest, I wasn’t massively impressed with the predecessor to this, Jurassic World (2015), and thought that this sequel was likely to be absolutely awful. Perhaps going in with those low expectations helped, though, as this turned out to be a lot of fun! Some of the poor choices – gender roles, in particular – have been fixed a bit, so there’s certainly less to complain about.

And on the other side of the coin, there’s enough to be happy about: dinosaurs! Bigger, cleverer, eviler dinosaurs! Evil megalomaniacs! Plucky kid (actually, could always do without that…)! And Toby Jones doing something of a Trump impression, in hair and a-hole-ness, at least 😉

The ‘unique’ selling point here is taking the dinosaurs off the island and into more familiar settings. It sort of works, and allows for scenes of lava destruction that scared me more than the beasties, tbh! There’s also an ‘other’ plot thread, which I don’t want to spoil, but quite frankly was a bit over sign-posted and set up with great importance that didn’t really pay off. Get back to the dinosaurs, already!!

There are also a lot of points in the movie which I’m sure are meant as honorable nods to the first film and others, but while one or two might work, there were just a few too many repetitions.

Overall: as mindless popcorn fun, this was a lot better than I was expecting. I had too much fun to be too harsh with the scoring!

Released: 6th June 2018
Viewed: 3rd July 2018
Running time: 128 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

Low Chicago – George RR Martin (ed)

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“It had been one hundred and forty-two years since John Nighthawk had been inside the Palmer House, and then it had been the earlier incarnation of the luxurious Chicago hotel, known simply as the Palmer.”

It seems very odd to jump into a series at book 25, but this isn’t the kind of story where that matters too much. Sure, I had to do a quick google for the underlying premise: an alien virus hits the Earth, and while most of the infected die, those that survive are altered. Known as the Wild Card event, most of those whose ‘cards turned’ become ‘jokers’ – cursed with some kind of abnormality, like the woman with rabbit ears. Some are ‘deuces’, granted low-level, party-trick kind of powers. But a very few are the ‘aces’, those with real superpowers.

The whole series has been collections of short stories, and this latest volume is no different. We start with a framing tale – very Canterbury Tales 😉 – of a high stakes poker game. Each player is allowed to take two bodyguards in with them, be that physical muscle or ace-skills, or both!

The human mutation premise isn’t exactly novel, but I think it’s a nice take on things here, feeling different enough from, say, X-Men.

When something goes awry during the card game, it turns out that one of the superpowers in the room is the ability to send people to different time periods. So, with regular interludes back to our framing tale, we then get a series of stories written by different authors detailing the ‘adventures’ of one or more of the party, flung into the distant or recent past.

I’m not sure I would have noticed the different authors if it hadn’t been made clear at the start, but once pointed out then yes, I caught a few differences in writing styles. That works well, though, given the range of eras the stories are set in: Jurassic to 1980s, with stops at several quite famous events – and with a few famous faces, to boot!

I really enjoyed both the premise of the stories here, and the individual time travel tales. There were a few times when I thought, “This is probably a reference to a previous story”, but nothing to detract too much. If I did have a complaint, it’s that this book gives a bit of a glimpse at a clearly well-established universe, but we don’t get to spend a great deal of time with character development or deeper explanations.

Still, that just gives me an even bigger reason to check out the rest of the series!

NetGalley eARC: 432 pages / 7 short stories plus framing tale
First published: 2018
Series: Wild Cards book 25
Read from 3rd-10th June 2018

My rating: 8/10

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

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Han Solo: cool, suave, cheeky grin. Shoots first, knows you love him. Almost certainly the best character in Star Wars. And once did the Kessel run in 12 parsecs, don’t ya know?

I had mixed feelings about this film – going in, and coming out. I like the Star Wars universe, it’s got a lot going for it that we maybe haven’t seen the best of via the main movies. So sure, let’s have another story set here, where aliens and humans and droids and all sorts of things mingle on planets of every type not just deserts, honest. I’m not entirely sure it needed to be this story, though: did we really need that cool-guy mythos broken down and laid out quite so much?

That aside, Solo is a fun watch. There’s a teenie little bit of the social commentary stuff that led to such a slow chunk of The Force Awakens, but mostly it’s just action, some laughs, more action, and plenty of nods to events and knowledge that viewers of the original movies will ‘get’.

I think the cast did very well here, especially Alden Ehrenreich with his near-impossible task of being Harrison Ford – he’s not as cool, but I suppose will grow into it 😉 Stand out for me was probably Phoebe Waller-Bridge as droid L3, done with such swagger and a chip on her shoulder the size of (“that’s not”) a moon (!). I wasn’t quite so taken with Paul Bettany’s baddie, but that might have been finding his menace less disturbing than why he had a face full of stretch marks o_O

Plot-wise it’s got few surprises, but it does try to cram quite a lot into the 2 and a quarter hours to stop you thinking too much. And that’s rather what I like from a trip to the cinema!

Released: 24th May 2018
Viewed: 25th May 2018
Running time: 135 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7.5/10 –  I think this would have been better as a complete stand-alone rather than a prequel, tbh

Ready Player One (2018)

ready player one poster

In the not-too-distant future, a virtual reality environment known as the Oasis has captured the minds of most of the human race. Why deal with your unhappy reality, when you can be anything you want, go anywhere you want, and do anything you want, in an environment that feels as real as real.

Five years before we start the movie, the Oasis’s creator, James Halliday, dies. But he’s left a final game for the players of the world: if they can find three keys hidden in challenges throughout the virtual worlds, one winner will inherit all of Halliday’s wealth – and control of the Oasis itself.

Everyone is after the prize, from ‘clans’ of players to corporations, and individuals like Wade aka Parzival, a massive geek and Halliday fanboy. Five years have passed and no one has found any clue – is that about to change?

I read the book this is based on a few years back, and while I quite enjoyed it I didn’t buy into the massive hype that surrounded it at the time. Conversely, I actually really enjoyed the movie and think a lot of the criticisms thrown at it are rather weak. If anything, I think the movie has smoothed over a few of the bits that didn’t work quite so well, such as Wade’s apartment life, making for a slightly tighter story. Some changes don’t work quite so well, like having the characters meet much sooner in real life, but are needed for the more visual medium, I reckon.

And talking of visuals: excellent! This is a virtual reality done by Spielberg, no surprise it looks pretty ace.

One complaint I heard before going that I’d like to take issue with: women do not get a raw deal in this movie, imo. The lead is male, but he’s not perfect, and the females around him get to kick butt and solve puzzles too.

Overall: I rather enjoyed this! It’s exactly what I would have wanted from the book adaptation and more, and it’s a hugely enjoyable romp through pop culture.

Released: 28th March 2018
Viewed: 2nd April 2018
Running time: 140 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 8/10

The Orville (season 1)

orville poster

Seth MacFarlane is well-known as the creator (and voice artist) of Family Guy, A Million Ways to Die in the West, and other showcases for his zany, un-politically correct humour. He now turns his attention to space and gives us his version of Star Trek.

Initial critics reviews were incredibly harsh, but thankfully a friend talked me into giving this a go – because it’s actually a lot of fun. It’s not poking fun at its source so much as paying homage while at the same time playing up some of the ridiculousnesses of the situations. While it never takes itself too seriously, it was surprisingly genuine and with ‘proper’ story lines, never falling into any hint of spoof.

The first episode is easily the weakest, focusing a lot on the break-up of Captain Ed Mercer’s (MacFarlane) marriage and the arrival of his ex-wife (Adrianne Palicki) as the new First Officer. Once this dynamic tails off, the series is a lot stronger for it.

And, as with all good sci-fi, there is actually a deeper moral to many of the storylines. Should a newborn baby be given corrective surgery to fit in with the rest of its culture? What about an alien race whose government is run by popular opinion? What are the real pitfalls of breaking the First Directive – something Star Trek seems to do regularly, with no real consequences.

Visually, there are a few indications that the budget here wasn’t super-high, but at the same time the CGI and makeup has been done well within its limitations and doesn’t distract at any point. And while, for instance, the gelatinous crew member isn’t absolutely hyper-realistically rendered, that’s more than forgivable for the sheer fact that the show has bothered with a non-humanoid crew member – because, why not?!

I not only really enjoyed this show as a light-hearted bit of sci-fi fun, but was actually quite impressed with how the ‘adult humour’ also allowed for some ‘adult level of thinking’ which was so often avoided to keep Star Trek appropriate for kids. Oddly, I actually believe in this society – and it looks both nice and a lot of fun!

First broadcast: December 2017
Series: 1 (2nd announced)
Episodes: 12 @ ~44 mins each

My rating: 8/10

Places in the Darkness – Christopher Brookmyre

places in the darkness cover

“‘Consciousness Does Not Exist,’ says Mehmet.”

Ciudad de Cielo, the city in the sky, abbreviated to CdC and pronounced ‘Seedee’. And this is the story of the seedy underbelly of what is meant to be a shining beacon for humanity’s future in the stars.

We alternate chapters from the point of view of two characters: Nikki ‘Fixx’, an ex-LA cop now Seedee security and not adverse to a backhander or eight. And Alice Blake: the new head of everything, here to root out corruption, about to get her eyes opened to the true extent of the issue.

All of which would be hard enough on both women, without the skinned corpse floating in a research lab…

I have slightly mixed feelings about this book. It’s a little heavy on the exposition of the sci-fi stuff, I thought, perhaps showing the author’s relative inexperience with the genre over the mystery and crime elements of the plot. I’ve read and enjoyed some of Christopher Brookmyre’s earlier work, and sci-fi is my favourite genre, so it was a little disappointing that the two didn’t gel a little better.

That said, the world that is created here is well thought out and reasonably immersive, and the eventual plot twists weren’t what I was expecting – they were better! I did think the attempts at setting red herrings along the way were a little too obvious, but when the final reveal happened I was suitably impressed.

Hardback: 403 pages / 72 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 26th February – 6th March 2018

My rating: 7/10