Worlds: Stupid Sci-Fi Film Tricks, The Expanse Edition

SPOILER ALERT for Season 1 of The Expanse if it’s on your “to watch” list.

Are you effing kidding me, The Expanse? I mean, are you effing kidding me?

Here we have a show that most people I know in SF have been raving about, I mean, absolutely raving about for the last couple of years. So I finally decided to use my Amazon Free Prime trial and binge-watch a few episodes.

And it looks good. Man does it look good. Really, the only problem I have with it from a science perspective is I think that it VASTLY underestimates what happens to things and people when a hole is knocked into an Earth-pressure cabin in hard vacuum, but I’m pretty willing to let that slide, on the large scale of things. That’s like complaining about lasers being visible in space combat. Of course they wouldn’t be, but the Rule Of Cool, well, rules.

So, for the first six episodes, I just sat back and enjoyed the SFX, the dialogue, the action, and the whole ride. So, the Earth UN controls Ceres, capital of the Asteroid Belt, by rationing its air and water. Mars, an independent state, also hungers to control Ceres, and the Belters just want to breathe and drink and not die. There’s a Free the Belt movement, headed up by a freedom-fighter/terrorist organization called the OPA, and of course Earth Cops on Ceres try to keep these terrorists down.
As our story opens, one of our protagonists is an Earth Cop chasing an Earth heiress who sympathized with the OPA and who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. We find she has something to do with a freighter set up as bait to lure in an innocent rescue ship that is then attacked by parties unknown with evidence pointing to Mars, apparently with the goal of starting a war. Earth Cop finds more and more evidence tying missing heiress to a raid on a supersecret Martian research base.

And then, episode 7. Oh, gods….

So Earth Cop figures out that heiress was an agent of the OPA Maximum Leader, and assembles the evidence, bringing it straight to his boss… who promptly wipes his files, revokes his access codes and fires him. He figures out she’s in Maximum Leader’s pocket, and as he storms out, the camera focuses in on boss’s neck, where she is sporting an OPA tattoo.

Get that? The OPA’s paid agent, the chief of the Earth Cops in the Belt, is wearing a terrorist tattoo in plain sight, advertising her allegiance. Among detectives. And we’re supposed to believe that somehow, no one noticed this. I mean, this is like a U.S. Naval officer showing up for duty on his ballistic missile submarine in 1985 sporting a hammer-and-sickle tattoo on his wrist. You think someone might ask questions?

And the hell of it is, it’s completely unnecessary. I mean, I believed she could have been a mole. But no one in the solar system would be such a stupid mole and survive more than a month. It drives me nuts when filmmakers feel obligated to underline visually what’s happening for us as though we are too dumb to understand words and to imagine likely consequences of such actions. Stop it.

From Somewhere In Orbit


Yes, Star Wars Fans, It Was Always Possible To Track Ships Traveling In Hyperspace: The Evidence

In The Last Jedi, the plot hinges on the idea that it is impossible to track ships through a hyperspace jump without cutting-edge First Order technology. I am going to make my case that it was always possible to track ships through hyperspace, and that this plot oint is an example of bad continuity.

Now at first glance, it seems that I am just wrong. After all, the Millennium Falcon always escapes Imperial pursuers by going to lightspeed. However, we need to examine the circumstances, here. Plainly, hyperspace jumps are not instantaneous, just very, very fast. Also, ships do not seem to be able to interact with each other physically (e.g. to fight battles) while in hyoerspace. Our first encounter with hyperspace is with the Falcon jumping away from Tatooine. Let’s look at that scene:

We have seen the Falcon jump to hyperspace. Then much later, at least long enough for Luke to start lightsaber training and R2-D2 to get involved in a board game with Chewbacca, Han comes in and says, “Well, you can forget your troubles with those Imperial slugs. I told you I’d outrun ’em!”
At the total lack of reaction he then says, “Don’t everybody thank me at once.”
Now, why this announcement, if the jump to lightspeed in itself meant they were untrackable? The clear implication is that the Empire was (or may have been) following them, and Han has spent the intervening time making sure of their escape. Of course Han was rather confident of his ability to do this: he’s flying the ship that “made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs” after all (whatever that means) and believes himself to be one of the best star pilots in the galaxy.

Later, upon emergence in the Alderaan system, they encounter a TIE fighter. The exchange that follows is revealing:
LUKE: “It followed us!”
BEN: “No, it’s a short range fighter.”
The implication is that a longer-range craft could potentially have followed them. Ben isn’t just speculating about how it got there, because he doesn’t start that until his next line: “A fighter that small couldn’t have gotten this far into space on its own…”

Additionally, how is it possible that the Empire is chasing down Princess Leia’s ship at all at the beginning of the movie if there is no way to track ships through hyperspace? Rogue One clearly establishes that this has happened. Remember, Obi-Wan Kenobi, last of the Jedi Knights, is hiding out on Tatooine. There is nothing else of importance there and the Empire does not know he is there.

Now, in Empire we seem to see some of the strongest evidence that hyperspace tracking is impossible, because the Falcon’s final getaway is by jumping to lightspeed, and the whole plot of the film hinges on the Falcon’s broken hyperdrive. However, it seems reasonable that by this time the Empire has simply learned that the Falcon is uniquely able to elude pursuit by jumping to hyperspace because of its speed. If the Falcon can complete a jump and start a new one before Imperial forces arrive, then of course it cannot be tracked.

Now, when Han Solo pulls his disappearing act by charging the Star Destroyer, Darth Vader orders the Falcon’s trajectory extrapolated from “its last known trajectory,” after killing the Star Destroyer’s captain for incompetence. Clearly, Vader expected better. Perhaps that he could have tracked them through hyperspace? After all, how would Vader have known the hyperdrive was malfunctioning? That Han Solo pulled off a gutsy and complex maneuver that foiled the Empire’s ability to track them does not imply that no such tracking ability exists.

Finally, in Return of the Jedi, we have our strongest piece of evidence that prior that tracking a ship through hyperspace is possible. It can be seen in this video at about 2:26-2:30.

There is a screen showing the Death Star II, and a cloud of rapidly approaching dots, just as Leia says, “Han, the fleet will be here any second.” Occam’s Razor suggests, “Hey look, the Imperials are tracking the Rebel fleet in hyperspace as it approaches.”

Now, none of this makes The Last Jedi a crappy movie. As stated earlier, I quite liked it. But it’s not in line with earlier continuity, and to my mind, that’s just a bit of lazy writing. I invite all arguments, but they’re going to have to explain away all of these incidents, not just one of them.

From Somewhere In Orbit

Movie Reviews Far Too Late: Why Pacific Rim Was Awful

I have friends who love the concept of giant, armored robots. I, personally, dislike the concept. For one thing, most of them are simply too big to be even halfway believable without incredibly advanced materials, but even with those, the truth is that for the money and maintenance you would expend on one giant humanoid mech, you could build a tank battalion with a fighter squadron for close air support that would a) take down a comparable mech and b) not be rendered useless by a single malfunctioning joint.

However, during the discussion, I realized that the reasons I hated Pacific Rim had nothing to do with its blatant mech fanboyism.

First, it violated what, to me, is a cardinal rule of good science-fiction storytelling. It’s a variant of something the Russian playwright Chekhov said: If a gun is on the stage in Act I, it has to be used by Act III. My variant on this for SF is this: If you’re going to tell us that some piece of machinery or battleship or whatever is incredibly super badass, you have to show it being badass. Not just tell us this, and then have it crumple like toilet paper. We were told that there was this super awesome Chinese mech, and this super awesome Australian mech, and they serve no purpose other than to be kaiju chew toys in the climactic battle. This was not necessary. Each mech could have been shown taking a kaiju down easily, and then being battered into scrap by more (or more dangerous) kaiju than had been previously encountered, exactly as we see the Death Star detonate Alderaan and then get taken down by the Rebels.

Second, and most ridiculous, they use a nuclear weapon to close the rift the kaiju are coming through, and yet no one ever thinks to use nuclear weapons on the kaiju themselves, despite the fact that the kaiju mostly materialize in the Pacific and then start heading toward cities? Someone should at least have tried this. And before anyone says that this would have been dangerous to the planet, just stop before you embarrass yourselves. Where do you think the vast majority of US nuclear weapons tests happened during the Cold War? Literally thousands of nuclear weapons have been detonated in the Pacific, with few to zero ill effects on the planet.

Pacific Rim is a blatant attempt to use a terrible, but cool-looking solution to a problem. It’s like having mounted knights go fight ISIS in 2018. I grant you that the actual solution, having satellites warning uniformed men in bunkers that it was time to launch nuclear air or sea strikes against kaiju, would not have been anything like as cool to watch. But it would have been far less stupid.

From Somewhere in Orbit

I Have No Enemies…

There’s an old story about Josef Stalin that alleges that the Communist leader and mass murderer called for a priest on his deathbed. Seeing as Stalin had been a terror to the Church, the priest tasked with this duty was frightened, but determined to tell the truth. In a shaking voice, he told Stalin that he must forgive his enemies. To his surprise, the dictator smiled and said, “That will be quite unnecessary, Father. I have no enemies.” Finding this impossible to believe, the priest summoned his courage and asked how that was possible. Stalin replied, “I’ve had them all executed.”

I watched the James Bond film, SPECTRE last night. It was pretty much a uniformly awful movie, with a predictable plot and nothing in it that hasn’t been done before and better by earlier Bond movies, notably the superb From Russia With Love, which the screenwriter had obviously seen approximately 472 times, but had failed to understand.

One of the worst features of the film was its depressing predictability: James comes home to find that “C” a new politician, is considering dropping the 00 program entirely in favor of electronic assets. It is clear within 5 minutes of his appearance that C is either the ultimate bad guy of the film, or in direct cahoots with him, and C is indeed unmasked as a traitor in the service of Blofeld (whose motivation was apparently to dominate the world because he was jealous that he had to share a few hours of his daddy’s attention with James when they were both teenagers, which makes him the most ridiculous temper-tantrum thrower of a world-dominating villain since Anakin Skywalker in Episode II, but I digress).

The reason I bring it up is because it really highlights the feature of what seems like a lot of movies these days: anyone troubling the hero must be the worst villain imaginable. It seems as if it is no longer possible for the hero to be saddled with someone who is (even temporarily) perhaps an asshole, but on the same side. For C to consider dismantling the 00 program, he does not have to be a traitor. He can still be a problem James has to solve, of course. In fact, he’s a much more challenging problem if he is loyal, because then James can’t simply kill him.

Movies weren’t always this way. As recently as Pirates of the Caribbean it was perfectly possible for the heroes to have an opponent, in this case, Captain Norrington, who are kind of assholes and who have to be circumvented, but who are, when it comes down to it, on the same side against the pirate-zombies and who are reasonably brave and not traitors.

One of the most extreme examples of the decline in this sort of thing is the mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America. A much better film than SPECTRE, it imagines a Ken Burns-style alternate history in which the United States was defeated and wholly assimilated into the Confederate States in a short Civil War, after which slavery was legal up to the present day. That this is a dystopia is obvious, but the screenwriters take it to such extremes as to imagine the United States being sympathetic to Hitler in the 1930s while at the same time going to war with Japan in the 1940s. How this bit of political gymnastics works out is never explained. The film even goes so far as to have the Confederate States sneak attack the Imperial Japanese Navy in Tokyo Bay on December 7th, 1941.

You can see what they have done here: the Confederate States of 1941 must not only be evil, (as, granted, they surely would have been), they must be so evil that they cannot experience the injustice of a sneak attack themselves. They are literally incapable of being wronged. If the Japanese had launched the war as they did historically, and bombed a Confederate fleet at Pearl Harbor, then we might, horror of horrors, be forced to imagine that something even worse than a Confederacy might exist. Like people who might, say, perpetrate the Rape of Nanking, which of course, the Japanese did.

I see in these films a symptom of something I find to be ugly and dangerous. The idea that being challenged in our preconceptions and beliefs about what is best (or worst) is equivalent to an attack that must be met with lethal force and no shred of mercy. And that is indeed frightening.

From Somewhere In Orbit

The Last Jedi: My Thoughts (Not That You Asked)

Introduction: I’ve been very grateful to everyone who has been thoughtful enough to avoid spoilers for the past month, or at least been thoughtful enough to warn me so that I wouldn’t read spoilers. Because of that, walking into the theater today, I was only aware of one major plot event in the movie, and very much appreciated that. Also, since having kids, I’ve gotten a new perspective on how impossible it can be to see a hot new movie within a reasonable amount of time, so am trying to be extra sensitive to those who may STILL be trying to avoid spoilers. Okay, that should fill up the preview for Facebook: ON TO THE SPOILERS!!!

The Good Stuff: I’m going to open up by saying that overall, I thought the good in this movie far outweighed the bad. I think Mark Hamill rose to heights of acting I’ve not previously seen from him. The rest of the cast likewise did well, but being a writer and not a drama geek anymore, I’m going to mostly discuss the writing.

I thought this film may have done more than any other to show what a Jedi on the cusp of “turning” to the Dark or Light really looks like in the complex relationship between Kylo and Rey. There was an ambiguity portrayed in these characters’ actions that explored how someone may reject a specific evil, and yet refuse to embrace virtue. There was a sense that Rey really was tempted by Kylo’s offer, not of power, but of belonging, whereas I never got the sense that Luke was ever truly tempted by Darth Vader as a father. Luke already had too strong sense of identity as Vader’s adversary for that.

I liked that there was no great secret behind Rey’s parentage, and the wound that this dealt her as she came to terms with that. I liked the backstory that filled in the reason Luke “lost” Ben Solo, and the tension that created with Rey.

I also really liked that Luke Skywalker correctly cut down the Jedi Council as a collective failure that allowed the Empire to seize power. I wish he’d turned some of that insight onto Yoda.

I very much liked that Supreme Leader Snoke had guards that actually seemed to be competent. I liked a little less that Kylo Ren, whom we saw stopping blaster bolts in Ep. VII, seems not to have considered directly using the Force a bit more in that fight.

I have to admire the visual homages to Empire and Jedi that managed not to feel nearly as much like a retread of those films as The Force Awakens did of New Hope. I am stunned and delighted that they had the guts to fit an homage to Hardware Wars in there.

The Bad Stuff: As far as the discussion that I am vaguely aware of regarding Vice-Admiral Holdo and her competence, I do think that Holdo’s command style was awfully opaque. Why, after all, not tell the people on her own ship what was going on, to give them hope? On the other hand, an opaque command style really doesn’t justify a subordinate relieving her of command. Poe Dameron is a mutinous idiot, and his and Finn’s and Rose’s actions led directly to the death of what appeared to be something like 2/3 of the Rebels Holdo planned to save. And him demanding to know what was going on right after her assumption of command and while she is obviously busy was just asinine.

One of my biggest peeves with the movie is the whole “no one can track anything through hyperspace” plot point. In all seriousness, this has ALWAYS been possible in Star Wars, from the very first: The Empire follows the Millennium Falcon through hyperspace to get to the Rebel Base. And before anyone says “But that’s because they put a homing beacon on their ship!” Uh-uh. Bullshit. Leia says “They’re tracking us.” Makes no mention of how. And if everyone knew it had to be a homing beacon, Hand and Chewie could at least have searched for one. Moreover, if everyone knew that the only way to track ships through hyperspace was by means of homing beacons, someone aboard that Rebel flagship should have said “Great Maker! Some spy has planted a homing beacon aboard our ship!” Not “Wow! The First Order must have just developed a whole new order of technology that-a-stormtrooper-and-a-maintenance-tech-can-deduce-must-be-based-on-the-same-principles-of-any-active-tracking-and-if-we-talk-really-fast-we-can-slide-weaklogicbytheaudienceandscream IT MUST BE ONLY ON THE LEAD SHIP SO WE CAN MOUNT A HOPELESS COMMANDO RAID ON THAT ONE WEAK POINT ‘CAUSE WE’RE REBELS THAT’S HOW WE ROLL!!”
Oh, and yeah, the whole argument that no one’s ever tracked anyone through hyperspace is also bullshit because in Jedi Han and Leia read Imperial sensors that were tracking the Rebel armada before it emerged from hyperspace. So there’s that.

This next one pains me to say, but there’s no way around it: I loved that someone finally decided to use a hyperspace ram on the big screen. That was an epic moment. Except…

…if that was possible and so easy to think of, why did the Rebels not use it during the Battle of Endor when they seemed sure to lose? Three or four hyperspace lances through a Death Star would have ruined the Emperor’s whole day, and would probably have been a net gain of ships for the Alliance besides.

The Dumb: Yoda has looked less wise with each passing movie. I really wanted Luke to rip into him. Aside from the line about the importance of passing on our failures to our students (which was poignant and true), Yoda came off as a cheap trick that weakened Luke’s character.

Oh, and along the lines of idiotic command decisions, Leia has the gall to slap Poe for not aborting in the middle of his attack run and endangering the bombers? Why the hell did she not just order them to abort herself and make Poe’s attack run moot?

And speaking of idiocy, the Empire has still not learned that you can’t shoot fighters down with anything but other fighters? That lesson should be well over two decades old.

I’m sorry, but Leia saving herself from the vacuum of space with the Force was dumb. Even dumber was them opening the door for her and not losing the whole corridor and themselves to decompression.

Okay, that’s it for now. All my judgments are, of course, right and true and utterly immune to criticism. Unless I think of something else later. Jump in, the argument’s fine!