Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Saturday, 26 May 2018

Amazon formally commissions Season 4 of THE EXPANSE

Amazon has reached a deal with Alcon Entertainment to produce a fourth season of The Expanse for its Amazon Prime TV streaming wing.


The Expanse was dropped a fortnight ago by SyFy, not over ratings but over their difficulties in monetising the show; their deal with Alcon meant that SyFy didn't get a cut from their streaming deal (with Amazon in the US and Netflix in the rest of the world), nor the DVD and Blu-Ray sales, making them unusually reliant on first-night viewing figures.

Jeff Bezos personally announced the pickup at the National Space Society, during a talk an hour after the Expanse cast and crew held a panel of their own.


The news came after two weeks of hard campaigning by fans, the cast and crew, which resulted in an aircraft flying over Amazon's HQ trailing a "SAVE THE EXPANSE" banner for four hours and even resulted in a model of the Rocinante spacecraft being sent into space.


With the sets still standing and preliminary work on a fourth season apparently already underway, we can expect to see The Expanse join Amazon Prime's line-up in 2019.

BattleTech

AD 3022. The Inner Sphere of human space is embroiled in the closing stages of the Third Succession War, a series of conflicts between the Great Houses for power and territory. Largely unaffected by the conflict is the Aurigan Coalition, a minor power among the Periphery States which has flourished under the rule of House Arano. Lady Kamea Arano is about to take her place as the head of the house when her uncle launches a brutal coup. Kamea disappears and one of her guardians, a MechWarrior of impressive skill, is rescued by a band of mercenaries. Three years later Kamea re-emerges with an offer to her former allies to help her reclaim her throne.


BattleTech is a turn-based strategy game, set in the shared BattleTech and MechWarrior universe which has been home to a tabletop miniatures game, a roleplaying game and multiple video games for thirty-five years, as well as over a hundred novels and even a short-lived animated series in the 1990s. Produced by Harebrained Schemes, who previously created the three acclaimed Shadowrun Returns RPGs (Dead Man's Switch, Dragonfall and Hong Kong), and designed by Jordan Weisman, the original co-creator of the entire franchise, the game has arrived with a fair bit of hype and a (mostly) positive reception.

The game plays in a manner similar to the recent Firaxis XCOM games, with a strategic section between missions where you can re-arm and repair your forces, recruit new troops and upgrade your base; and the turn-based, tactical combat section of the game. The strategic section is set on board a spacecraft, initially the very cramped and awkward Leopard and later on the more impressive and spacious Argo. You can upgrade the Argo so it can hold more BattleMechs (building-sized humanoid death vehicles) and repair them more quickly, but you can also add what appear to be more frivolous additions such as as a zero-G swimming pool and a 3D entertainment system. These appear pointless but give your pilots additional Morale Points which they can spend in battle to pull off special moves; whether you agreed to host Burger Night might determine later on if your pilot can core-shot an Assault 'Mech that's just about to wipe out your team. You can also wander around the ship and talk to the crew, which is initially entertaining until you realise the crew's dialogue choices very, very rarely update with new information.


The game has a storyline which you can follow, but crucially you can go off-course at any time to pursue side-missions. The game procedurally generates missions which you can undertake for money, salvage and to gain experience for your MechWarriors. The game doesn't make it entirely clear that pursuing side-missions is not optional: if you just try to pursue the story missions one after another, you'll rapidly find the enemies escalating beyond your ability to handle. Taking time between story missions to do other jobs and improve your team is essential. Thanks to a handy starmap, you can visit several dozen systems spread between half a dozen or so factions, with jobs running from simple search-and-destroy missions to base defence to escort.

Once you've picked a mission, you can choose which 'Mechs to use and how to outfit them. The game's tutorials are extremely basic and don't do a great job of explaining 'Mech customisability. Each 'Mech design (there are 36 in the game, with a further 22  model variations) has different hardpoints for weapons, ammo and equipment, such as jump jets and heat sinks. Your weapon choice is key in the game, with Auto Cannons doing tremendous damage but also being incredibly large and heavy, and requiring a separate ammo feed. Long-range missiles can inflict small amounts of damage on enemies at extreme range, but of course hit them enough times with enough missiles and you can take them out before they even enter close-weapons range. Short-range missiles are far more powerful, but are only effective at short range. Laser and plasma weapons have impressive range and don't require ammo, but generate a lot of heat and aren't great at taking out armour. If you find you can't carry all the guns you want, you can make room by stripping off armour...which is great until you realise you've stripped off too much armour and now have a colossal walking arsenal of death which will drop dead if a fly sneezes at it.


This juggling of load-out options is tremendous fun, especially once you have a handle on what decisions will have the most noticeable impact on the battlefield and you can access to special weapons with bonus damage factors (identified by a "+" scene after their name), but again the game leaves a lot of this information unstated and you have to pick it up as you go along.

Once these decisions have been made the game switches to a 3D battlemap. Initially you can send your 'Mechs scurrying around simultaneously, but that ends when the enemy enters sensor range. At that point you can order your 'Mechs to take up new positions, seek cover in forests or behind hills, jump-jet up onto a handy mountain, use a sensor lock to identify the target (allowing you to rain long-range fire on them) or race into visual range and start the slugfest. Combat is turn-based, but is oddly based on mobility: how far your 'Mech moved before firing determines its Evasive skill, which the enemy must overcome before they can hit you. Taking down an enemy 'Mech can be accomplished by slugging away, or (if you have enough Morale Points) making called shots on particular parts of the enemy machine. Destroy the hard-to-hit cockpit and you can capture the enemy 'Mech intact, blow off its legs and you can take the torso off (and if you pick up more salvage from the same model later on, you can patch it back into service) and so on. Particularly entertaining is taking on an enemy 'Mech laden with cannons and missiles, as if you hit the part of the body where the ammo is stored you can set off a chain reaction and blow the whole 'Mech up.


As well as dealing with positioning, facing (if you take a lot of damage on one side of your 'Mech, you can spin around in the next round and present a different armour facing to the enemy) and weapons, you also have to manage heat. Relying on lasers and plasma weapons a lot generates a lot of heat. If you go over the heat threshold, the 'Mech will start heat damage; go too far over it and your 'Mech will shut down for a round, or (much more rarely) explode. As a result, judicious choices have to be made each round on what weapons to use on what targets (an optional ability allows your pilots to target multiple enemy 'Mechs in the same round of fire) and when running into a river to cool off is a good idea. Your 'Mechs' heat management is also impacted by the environment: polar missions will allow you to fire a lot more often before overheating, whilst for a desert mission you may want to ditch the energy weapons altogether in favour of cooler ballistics.

On top of that you also have stability to worry about: BattleMechs are top heavy and can be knocked over by ballistic and missile fire, or smacked over in melee combat (ah yes, 'Mechs can literally punch one another as well). Falling 'Mechs injure their pilots and become much more vulnerable to called shots.


The result is a constantly shifting, extremely fascinating game of rock-paper-scissors-plasma beam, one that you have to re-evaluate as the game continues. There's a lot to keep track of, but also a lot of fun ways of exploiting the rules to find the optimal set-up. On top of this there are your individual pilots or MechWarriors to look after. They gain experience between missions and this unlocks special abilities, as well as giving them better aim and defence. Sometimes you can win a mission, but you may have lost a favourite pilot and a hard-earned rare weapon in the process, and will have to choose between reloading or accepting the loss and carrying on.


Once you get to grips with this information - it sounds more daunting than it actually proves in-game - BattleTech sings. The customisability and character advancement becomes a compelling game in its own right, and the combat missions become great exercises in tactical skill. Like the XCOM games, BattleTech's systems are so well-designed that apparently insurmountable odds and unwinnable missions can often be overcome by stepping back and coming at the situation from a different angle. It's surprising how much of a difference a single weapon change, a single morale-boosted ability or a single change of 'Mech can make to a tricky battle.

The game could be a bit better in how all of this information is presented. The tutorials are exceptionally basic and the finer points of how the game works only emerge through playing. There are also a few minor technical issues: the time it takes to move between screens and menus is somewhat longer than it should be, and occasional visual bugs (such as the camera choosing to sit behind a mountain or tree rather when it should be showing an enemy 'Mech blowing up) irritate. Some reviewers have complained of the animations being a bit slower than they'd like. I didn't notice this myself, but there are menu options to fix this and even a few mods to speed things up if it becomes a major issue.


The game's biggest problem, ultimately, may also be seen as its greatest strength. Harebrained Schemes' previous project, the Shadowrun Returns trilogy, was excellent but criticised for the short length of each game, lack of optional side-content and lack of replayability. BattleTech certainly doesn't suffer from that, with an infinite number of procedurally-generated missions (soon to be expanded through DLC) and a truly vast number of options making each run through the game's story potentially very different. However, the game's reliance on these side-missions and the need to play them to get better equipment and skills - "grinding", to use the common parlance - threatens to make the game very repetitive. My initial run through the game lasted 54 hours, which is a huge amount of time to spend watching robots shoot other robots, and monotony occasionally threatened to set in during a mid-game period when I had to grind to get enough money and heavy 'Mechs to proceed to the next story mission.

But looking past that, the game is certainly rewarding, with a number of interesting systems to delve into and tweak. The graphics are decent (but not exceptional, belying the game's low budget), the sound is punchy and the music is excellent. The story is fairly standard but well-told with some great characters. Some of the story missions are exceptionally well-designed and fiendishly challenging as well. Best of all, the tactical combat and mercenary-management sides of the game come together to create something compelling, fresh and interesting, once you understand how it all works.

BattleTech (****) is available now for PC. Console versions may follow depending on the game's initial sales, and both free DLC and paid expansions on the way.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Gratuitous Lists: The Star Wars Movies Ranked (updated)

The philosophy of the Gratuitous Lists feature was to have lists of stuff that are unranked, because frankly if you're talking about the 12th best thing of all time or the 9th best thing of all time, the differences are going to be pretty minor. In the case of a Star Wars movie list, however, that's kind of pointless because there's too few things to put on the list. So for these ones I'm ranking them and people can argue away to their heart's content. So let us proceed.

For the record, Lucasfilm have seemingly ruled both Caravan of Courage (1984) and The Battle for Endor (1985) - which were both released in cinemas in Europe - as non-canon, so I'm going with the eleven Star Wars movies theatrically released since 1977.


11. The Clone Wars

Released 15 August 2008 • Directed by Dave Filoni • Written by Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching and Scott Murphy

Over the course of five-and-a-half seasons, The Clone Wars evolved into a fantastic, gripping and fun pulp SF adventure show. However, it took a while to get there. The first few episodes were made on a limited budget with very few CG assets, whilst producer Dave Filoni and his team were still finding their feet with pacing and characterisation. George Lucas was a little bit too impressed by what the guys at Lucasfilm Animation had achieved when he decided it was good enough quality to go on the big screen. Coming in the same year as Wall-E and with a juvenile tone that turned off adult Star Wars fans, The Clone Wars just couldn't cut it.

If some of the later, much better arcs and episodes had been made into an animated film, the results may have been different.


10. Attack of the Clones

Released 16 May 2002 • Directed by George Lucas • Written by George Lucas & Jonathan Hales

Well, where to start? The worst live-action Star Wars movie has the most risible performances, dialogue (including the epic "hatred of sand" speech), execrable plotting and confused structural tics out of all of them. It's embarrassing to see actors of the calibre of Natalie Portman and Christopher Lee working with scripts this awful and the hyper-polished CGI sheen over the effects is sterile and uninvolving. Hayden Christensen isn't quite as bad as is often said (given that even Samuel L. Jackson and Ewan McGregor are struggling with this material, Christensen doesn't really disgrace himself) but is still an uninteresting protagonist. Even John Williams is feeling uninspired, only rising to the occasion in his score when he revisits themes from previous movies.


9. Revenge of the Sith

Released 19 May 2005 • Directed by George Lucas • Written by George Lucas

Revenge of the Sith and The Phantom Menace are at a very similar level of quality and you could swap their positions quite easily. Sith, for me, falls short for several reasons. The first is that the utterly pointless CG overload of Attack of the Clones is pursued and doubled down on in Revenge of the Sith, making the film feel even more artificial and sterile. The next is that the dialogue has somehow even gotten worse, along with the performances. Natalie Portman's cringe-inducing "You're breaking my heart!" and Ewan McGregor's completely flummoxed reaction to Anakin murdering children are both awful pieces of acting.

There are some good moments in Sith - the dialogue-less moment where Anakin decides to betray the Republic and the execution of Order 66 - and John Williams remembers to show up with a couple of excellent scoring moments, but the long-awaited Obi-Wan/Anakin lightsabre showdown is awful and the conclusion of the Clone Wars is bitty and unsatisfying. Revenge of the Sith had the potential for greatness and wastes it thanks to George Lucas's ego. On that level Revenge of the Sith isn't the worst Star Wars movie but it is, easily, the most disappointing.


8. The Phantom Menace

Released 19 May 1999 • Directed by George Lucas • Written by George Lucas

Enjoying The Phantom Menace is possible, especially if you cheat and watch The Phantom Edit (which cuts out the majority of Jar-Jar scenes and dramatically reduces the "endearing" antics of little Anakin). But even the original edit is fine if you can simply ignore Jar-Jar. The Phantom Menace emerges as (marginally) the best film of the prequel trilogy thanks to its absolutely stellar soundtrack (a never-better John Williams), the grounded, inspiring presence of Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn and the use of real sets and models for many of the effects. It also helps that our main villain Darth Maul almost never speaks, so retains some menace rather than losing it by uttering inanely awful dialogue. Some CG overload is still present, but it's nothing as bad as the latter two prequel movies. There's also a pacier feel to events, with the shifts in location and plot meaning that weaker scenes don't drag on as long as they do in the two other prequels, and the movie may feature the prequel trilogy's best set-piece with the pod racing sequence, as well as its best (if occasionally showiest) lightsabre duel.

It's still an enormously flawed film with plot holes you can drive a Star Destroyer through, of course, but not quite as awful as its reputation suggests.


7. The Last Jedi

Released 15 December 2017 • Directed by Rian Johnson • Written by Rian Johnson

The Last Jedi is certainly not the worst Star Wars movie but it's clearly the most divisive. The film does so much so well - Luke Skywalker's return does not go the way you expect, the disturbing Rey/Kylo relationship is something Star Wars hasn't really done before and the signature lightsabre battle is outstanding - but also squanders a lot of goodwill through an utterly pointless filler storyline on a casino planet and some very strange character choices, along with a musical score phoned in by John Williams on an off day.

There's a huge amount of unrealised potential in the movie, which a few more rewrites and judicious editing could have fixed. But the biggest problem is that The Last Jedi does not follow through on its promise: Rey should have joined Kylo Ren at the end and either become the big villain for Episode IX, or perhaps tried to work to redeem him from within. By instead snapping back to the status quo at the end of the movie, it betrays its own promise to be an edgier and different kind of Star Wars movie. Instead, it returns things to normal and I can't see J.J. Abrams doing anything too unpredictable in the next movie to keep things fresh.


6. Rogue One

Released 16 December 2016 • Directed by Gareth Edwards • Written by John Knoll, Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy

Rogue One is a fine movie with some fantastic performances, action sequences and individually powerful scenes. CG overload is mostly avoided and the film feels punchy, almost nailing The Dirty Dozen in Space vibe it is shooting for. The movie also, and rather surprisingly, justifies its existence by mostly avoiding continuity problems and fixing a couple of niggling problems in the original Star Wars.

On the negative side of things, characterisation can be a little variable (Jyn's motivations seem to have gotten lost in the edit) and the way the film ends is structurally messy, whilst the score is forgettable. But congratulations to Lucasfilm for having the resolve to end the film in the only manner that makes sense. It's all good from hereon up.


5. Solo

Released 25 December 2018 • Directed by Ron Howard (with Phil Lord & Christopher Miller) • Written by Lawrence Kasdan & Jonathan Kasdan

This is a story that didn't really need to be told and there were audible groans when it was announced, but ultimately it ends up being a worthwhile ride. This is Star Wars in its purest form, a pulp space adventure with fun characters getting into hijinks against the backdrop of entertaining set pieces. There's some great quips, some fine performances (the best from Donald Glover as the young Lando Calrissian) and some rousing action.

Most impressive is Solo's ability to surprise, albeit in the form of opening up the ending to allow for a sequel. Completely unexpected characters show up, one character whose storyline you thought you could write from the first scene goes in an unexpected direction and the movie overall rises above its troubled production (including the firing of the original directors halfway through production)


4. The Force Awakens

Released 18 December 2015 • Directed by J.J. Abrams • Written by Michael Arndt, Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams

The Force Awakens is two movies sitting on top of one another. The first is the struggle of the Resistance to avoid the destruction of their hidden base by the First Order's planet-destroying superweapon, which is ludicrously powerful but has a rather-easily-exposed weakness. This plot is less than satisfying, since it's a retread of Star Wars (A New Hope). However, the second is the family drama of Han Solo and Princess Leia having a son strong in the Force who brutally betrays them, murders his way into a position of power in the First Order and embraces the Dark Side, but is constantly tempted by the lure of good. New character Rey has the chance to take his place as the new champion of the Force, but only if she can overcome her own limitations in the process.

This latter story is far more interesting and provides The Force Awakens with its real dramatic meat. Excellent performances by newcomers and old hands alike (Carrie Fisher may have considered a couple of remedial catch-up acting lessons, but she doesn't have too much to do so that's not too much of a problem), excellent effects and John Williams dropping an awesome musical score combine to make a movie that couldn't feel any more Star Wars if it tried. Far from a perfect movie, the main problem with The Force Awakens is that it sometimes tries a little too hard to be Star Wars rather than going with the flow. But as franchise-resurrecting reboots go, this is impressive. Some may even say...most impressive.


3. Return of the Jedi

Released 25 May 1983 • Directed by Richard Marquand • Written by George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan

Return of the Jedi always comes last from the original trilogy when these lists are written, which feels a little unfair. It's got the best space battle of the entire saga, it has a fantastic three-way showdown between Luke, Vader and the Emperor, it has awesome music and also some very fine dramatic moments (Luke and Vader's conversation at the docking platform may be the most underrated scene of the saga). Mark Hamill also gives arguably his best performance in this movie (although it's close between this one and Empire).

It's also a bit of a structurally weak film. Spending so much time at Jabba's palace doesn't quite work, since Jabba is a secondary villain not really worth the screentime he eats up. Also, and this is far more prevalent on marathons when you don't have three years between films, Han Solo's entire kidnap storyline feels like a waste of time given how easily it is resolved. Han and Lando's morally dubious sides have also been eroded away with both now straight-up good guys and white hats, which makes them a bit less interesting. And of course, Ewoks (although I've never had that big a problem with them).

But it's still a fine capstone to the first six films in the saga which earns its (mostly) happy ending.


2. Star Wars

Released 25 May 1977 • Directed by George Lucas • Written by George Lucas, Gloria Katz (uncredited) and Willard Huyck (uncredited)

This is where the fun begins. Released in 1977 and made on a modest budget, Star Wars (reluctantly aka A New Hope) utterly transformed cinema in a way not seen before or since. Watching it today, it's clearly the cheapest Star Wars movie but this also means it has to focus more on story, character and dialogue. It's also pacy and energetic, steered by a never-better George Lucas clearly realising he has the chance to reinvent the wheel here. A brilliant space battle, a tremendous musical score and some very effective Tunisian location filming all give the film a sense of scale and scope that goes beyond its meagre resources. Thrown in tremendous performances from Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness and a star-making turn by Harrison Ford, and the original Star Wars is still a brilliantly-conceived piece of entertainment.


1. The Empire Strikes Back

Released 21 May 1980 • Directed by Irvin Kershner • Written by George Lucas, Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan

The Empire Strikes Back being the best Star Wars movie has been clear for years, but it's still remarkable just how good it is. It goes dark compared to the original movie, but its power comes more from how invested the audience is in the relationships from the first movie and how effectively this sequel messes around with those relationships (Han and Leia hooking up wrong-foots the audience expecting her to get together with Luke). The film also feels more naturalistic, with director Irvin Kershner letting his actors breathe, discussing character motivation and improvise dialogue in manner that George Lucas was incapable of doing. Most importantly, new characters such as Yoda and Lando grab hold of the imagination and are just as strong as the returning characters, which is quite a feat for a sequel.

The film also has arguably the Star Wars saga's greatest effects set piece as the Millennium Falcon swoops balletically through an asteroid field with John Williams' soundtrack framing events perfectly, with the Battle of Hoth not far behind it in quality.

But of course the real reason the film emerges as the best in the saga is down to that climactic confrontation between Luke and Vader which turns what was supposed to be a disposable popcorn series into an epic, generation-spanning family tragedy. This remains the Star Wars bar of quality that needs to be beaten.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Boba Fett STAR WARS movie apparently back in development

With Solo in cinemas and work on Episode IX underway, Disney are turning their attention to how the next generation of Star Wars movies are going to shake up. They are planning two new trilogies of films as well as more stand-alone movies to be released under the "Star Wars Story" moniker.


At the moment Disney have no officially-announced movies slated for release beyond J.J. Abrams' Episode IX, which is expected to hit cinemas in December 2019. The question of what Star Wars stand-alone movie will arrive in 2020 has been occupying fans of late, with strong rumours circulating that Ewan McGregor will be reprising his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi for a film set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliott, The Hours) is in talks to direct the film, with shooting reportedly already pencilled in for 2019 but still not officially announced or confirmed.

Today it's been strongly reported that a Boba Fett movie is back on the production slate. The film was one of several ideas announced alongside Rogue One and Solo, but it was shelved after Disney fell out with prospective director Josh Trank, with Solo moved up the production schedule to replace it. The report today is that the project is back on with Logan director James Mangold in talks to direct.

It's unclear if the once-mooted idea that an unknown character would kill the Fett from the prequel trilogy and steal his identity (thus restoring ambiguity to a character whose backstory should never have been explored in the first place) is still in serious contention either.

It's also unclear at the moment if the Fett movie is meant for the 2020 or 2021 slot; Mangold was supposed to be directing a movie about the Ferrari company next, so assuming that's still the case, this would suggest that the Obi-Wan movie will be out in 2020 with a Fett film to follow in 2021. However, this production timetable is complicated by the fact that Rian Johnson is developing a Star Wars movie trilogy (albeit one with a brand-new story, not centred around the "saga") and Game of Thrones producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will be rolling directly into their own multi-film Star Wars project after Thrones wraps next year.

This crowded production space - which isn't even taking into consideration the heavily-rumoured Solo sequel or the Yoda movie (although that seems to be more permanently off the table, given George Lucas apparently absolutely hated the idea) - suggests that Disney want to take Star Wars in the same direction as the Marvel movies, with 2 or even 3 movies a year released. Whether this is viable given the apparently lack of confidence in the Star Wars camp over allowing their movies to be as diverse in tone as the Marvel roster is open to question.

At the moment a potential Star Wars release schedule going forward could look like this:

December 2019: Star Wars: Episode IX
2020: Obi-Wan: A Star Wars Story
Early 2021: Fett: A Star Wars Story
Late 2021: Rian Johnson Trilogy #1
Early 2022: Solo sequel
Late 2022: Benioff & Weiss Trilogy #1

There's also the Star Wars live-action TV show set a few years after Return of the Jedi, helmed by Jon Favreau, which should arrive in late 2019 or early 2020, and Star Wars: Resistance, a new animated show focusing on Captain Phasma and Poe Dameron which will arrive later this year.

Star Wars: Solo

Han and Qi'ra are two slum-rats living in the industrial hellhole that is Corellia, a planet whose proud people have been reluctantly turned into shipbuilders for the Galactic Empire. Han manages to escape, but vows to return one day to save the woman he loves. Three years later he's been bounced from the Imperial Academy, served as a grunt in a confusing war and then defected to join a criminal gang looking for a big score. Han still wants to get home, but first he needs a crew, a ship and a co-pilot.


In 1972, during the shooting of his second feature film, American Graffiti, George Lucas turned to his young lead actor Ron Howard and told him about the plans he had to make an exciting, Buck Rogers-riffing space opera franchise, a story of rip-roaring space adventures with scoundrels as heroes, blasters and lots of action. Forty-six years later, in a plot twist few could have seen coming, Ron Howard finally made that film.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is certainly not the best Star Wars movie, but it may be the purest. This is a film about a roguish hero who sets out on a quest to pull off a heist to get the girl and it all goes a bit sideways and he learns some lessons and the audience has a huge amount of fun along the way. This is Star Wars with an alternate take on the hero's journey, without the space wizards or magic or laser swords or prophecies, but plenty of blasters, quips and explosions. It's also a surprising Star Wars movie: almost any nerf herder who's seen the Empire Strike Back incarnation of Han Solo could write a version of this movie which was safer, duller and very predictable. It fell to the movie's bizarre gestation period (including a change of directors two-thirds of the way through production) and formidable writing team (including Lawrence Kasdan making his farewell to the franchise that made his name) to turn it into a more surprising and interesting beast.

Solo is relentless. It's a film that lands with a massive bang - a chase through the tunnels of Corellia - and then does not let up for over two hours. Set piece after set piece rains down on the viewer, but the Kasdan team and the directors (I'm not even going to guess who directed what scenes here) keep the movie buoyant, not allowing it to get too bogged down in exposition. Dialogue sparkles and the action is very well-handled, with the fights and chases being easy to follow. There's a surprising physicality to the film, with a reliance on actual stunts and sets rather than CGI, which is good to see. The fast-moving flow of the film also sometimes masks some dubious plot twists - one coincidental meeting is so far beyond implausible it's not even remotely credible, but hey, the Force or something - but it's not like Star Wars hasn't had a few of those before.

There's also a fortunately strong reliance on the actors. Alden Ehrenreich won't be nominated for an Oscar, but is mostly effective at channelling the spirit of Harrison Ford (and he's better at doing that than trying to do an outright imitation), albeit a younger and even more cocksure version. Emilia Clarke is great as his love interest Qi'ra, and the movie takes her character in a very surprising (and welcome) direction that goes beyond being just a motivational force for Han's journey. But the real plaudits will be awarded to Woody Harrelson, whose grizzled scoundrel-mentor character of Beckett is way more Han than Han himself, and particularly Donald Glover. His take on Lando Calrissian is the highlight of the film, with formidable comic timing, surprising emotional depth and a performance that channels the spirit of a pre-1980 Billy Dee Williams. Even better, Lando isn't allowed to be too dominant a force in the movie: he has his role to play and departs once that is done. Paul Bettany also has a small but significant role as the film's erstwhile antagonist, a criminal overlord who first Beckett and then Han get indebted to and have to pull off a dangerous heist to appease.


Hardcore Star Wars fans will also enjoy the film for its numerous call-outs to the defunct Expanded Universe (particularly a nod to the Maw Installation and the dangerous approach to Kessel) and one particular moment that will blindside the 90% of the audience who hasn't seen The Clone Wars or Star Wars: Rebels, leaving the other 10% feeling particularly smug as they nod to one another across the cinema and say, "Ah, of course" in a probably insufferable manner. After seeing the Marvel Cinematic Universe go to some lengths to avoid mentioning its TV spin-offs as canon in the films, seeing Star Wars just breezily and casually do it in the most unexpected manner possible is terrific, if extremely geeky. More casual Star Wars fans will appreciate the nods to other Star Wars films and stories (C3-PO asks a question in The Empire Strikes Back which never gets answered, but it does here), with the film having some fun in giving us very brief answers to questions that no-one ever asked ("Where did Han Solo get his blaster?") but occasionally getting rather silly in giving more in-depth answers to questions no-one ever asked ("Where did Han Solo's name come from?").

The movie does have several significant flaws, however. The first is that towards the end of the movie it goes a bit too obviously in the direction of sequel-bait. Solo is directed towards a new mission, several side-characters are revealed to have unexpected agendas and a new villain is unveiled. With rumours circulating that Disney are considering two sequels to this movie, they clearly leave enough on the deck to facilitate that. However, the film does hit most of the beats you expect and if those sequels don't happen - Solo's incredibly low-key release, mixed word of mouth and the massive juggernaut of Infinity War still commanding the box office could result in this being one of the lowest-grossing Star Wars movies to date - there's enough closure here not to make the absence of a sequel hurt too much (they can also rather cleverly tie those elements into the Obi-Wan movie instead, if necessary). The second problem is that the movie is definitely too long. This film works best as a pulpy space adventure, a rip-roaring, fast-paced adventure. The two hour-and-ten-minute run time isn't entirely compatible with that and the film does feel like a set piece or two could have been yanked out to get this movie down to a brisker ninety minutes or so.

For a film with as tortured a development process as this one, Solo: A Star Wars Story (****) ends up being surprisingly focused and enjoyable, with great performances and a fun storyline that isn't as predictable as you'd think. Of the new generation Star Wars films, this one views with The Force Awakens as the best: The Force Awakens is better-cast with a far stronger villain, but Solo is far less predictable and manages more genuine surprises. The movie is on general release now.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

GOTHAM and AGENTS OF SHIELD reprieved for another year

With cancellation-ageddon scything down shows by the dozen (although Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been saved and The Expanse looks likely for a last-minute move to Amazon), the fates of superhero dramas Gotham on Fox and Agents of SHIELD on ABC had looked dubious. Fortunately, both shows have been saved.

Image result for agents of shield

Gotham has been given a fifth season order, which will also be the show's last. The showrunners have confirmed that the series will finally see Bruce Wayne become Batman, with the show loosely adapting the Zero Year comic storyline (having dabbled with both the Killing Joke and No Man's Land storylines in Season 4). An episode count for the final season has yet to be decided, but given the nature of the show's reprieve it may only be 13 episodes.

Agents of SHIELD has also been given a 13-episode order, although this is plot-related: the opening of Season 6 will apparently reflect on events in Infinity War II, which is not due to hit cinemas until May 2019. The half-season order means that Agents of SHIELD will not return until shortly before the movie arrives in cinemas, allowing them to play out the aftermath of the cliffhanger before the sequel comes out and then continue afterwards. This will also be accompanied by the first movement of the Agents of SHIELD cast back to the films: Clark Gregg, who plays Agent Coulson on the show, will reprise the role in the Captain Marvel movie due for release in February 2019.

The long-term fate of Agents of SHIELD and the Netflix Marvel shows are in question: ABC is unhappy with the relatively low ratings of Agents of SHIELD and allegedly both the fifth and sixth season renewals came at the behest of their owners, Disney, to help their Marvel brand. ABC have objected because they could have a new and hopefully better-performing show in the timeslot instead. Disney are also launching a new adult-oriented streaming service at the end of 2019 which will include a Marvel track (including a brand-new live-action show, the details of which have not yet been revealed, and a Star Wars TV show helmed by Jon Favreau), and rumours are circulating that Agents of SHIELD may be moved over to that service. It's also possible that Disney will pull their six Netflix shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke CageIron Fist, The Defenders and The Punisher) to transfer to the new service, as they likely don't want to be making shows for the competition.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Amazon in provisional talks to save THE EXPANSE

Amazon has reached a provisional agreement with Alcon Entertainment to save The Expanse.


SyFy dropped the show last week after disappointing ratings for the first few episodes of Season 3, despite the show scoring a rare 100% positive review metric at Rotten Tomatoes. The Expanse is the second-highest-rated show on the network (behind only The Magicians), but SyFy's deal with Alcon Entertainment means they only get first-run US broadcast rights. Streaming rights go to Amazon US and international broadcast rights go to Netflix. DVD and Blu-Ray sales also go to Alcon. This means that in order to monetise the show, SyFy needs the show to be a big hit on first-run broadcast or on reruns or DVR recordings watched within three days. And of course, that's not how people consume media any more.

Amazon's deal is provisional and apparently dependent on a financially suitable package being worked out that is agreeable to everyone. Potential sticking points relate to the show's international rights and whether it's possible for Amazon to pick them up for Netflix without it breaking the bank to do so, or even if it's possible for Amazon and Netflix to do a shared distribution deal, which would be breaking new ground.

The Expanse is an appealing pick-up for Amazon: it's critically acclaimed but also has mass appeal (which neither SyFy nor Netflix have fully realised), it is relatively cheap by Amazon's standards even as it was quite expensive by SyFy's, and it already has a production team and cast in place, along with standing sets and a shooting schedule. The show's team has also been surprisingly good at getting seasons out the door with only 12-14 months between them, unlike the 18-24 months being taken by other streaming shows. Amazon has picked up a whole raft of SF and fantasy projects based on books recently (including Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian, Ringworld and a show based on Iain Banks' Culture novels), so The Expanse fits into that wheelhouse perfectly. The good news is that with all of those projects at least three years away, The Expanse could get at least another two seasons on TV before they hit, giving Amazon some much needed original content.

Apparently Jeff Bezos is a fan of the books (the guy is a massive SFF fan) and was keen on Amazon getting involved in the first place when the US streaming rights came up, and is happy to shell out the money for the entire show as long as it makes sense to do so. It now looks like the deal will hinge on whether Amazon can extricate the international rights from Netflix, but so far the noises sound positive.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

The Second Poppy War between the vast Nikara Empire and the island-bound Federation of Mugen ended in victory for Nikara...just. The cost of victory was high, so the Empire has established an elite military academy at Sinegard. Open to everyone, nobles and commoners alike, the academy is training the next generation of warriors who will defend the Empire. For Rin, a war orphan from the provinces, the academy is her only hope of avoiding her arranged marriage. But the path she sets out on will take her to far stranger places, and in the maelstrom of an unwinnable war involving forces she does not comprehend.


The Poppy War is the debut novel by R.F. Kuang and is an Asian-themed epic fantasy. War, magic and dark forces beyond mortal ken are all present and correct, as are angst, training montages and moral mazes the characters find impossible to travel through without getting blood on their hands and their consciences.

The novel doesn't do anything particularly new, but it does have an interesting arc for the central character of Rin. Normally these kind of stories feature a plucky young hero who is tempted by dark forces but nobly avoids them and wins a great victory for the forces of the light anyway. The Poppy War doesn't do that. It's message is consistently one of choice and consequence: the easy option is always the more costly one, and Rin, being a teenage orphan with no real experience of how the world works, makes pretty much the worst decision at every turn. It's a human and realistic response that moves The Poppy War away from its opening chapters - where it veers a bit too close to every fantasy school drama you've ever read - more towards psychological horror and a bloody-minded war story. Imagine Joe Abercrombie taking over Harry Potter halfway through the series before handing off to R. Scott Bakker for the finale and you may have an idea of the dramatic tonal darkening the novel undergoes on its way to one of the more memorable fantasy finales of recent years.

There's an interesting magic system, based around the summoning of god-spirits into the world, although this is not developed perhaps as fully as it could have been. The worldbuilding is fine on a macro level but on the level of fine detail it is lacking. The best fantasy worlds draw you into them, making you eager to learn more about them, but Nikara and Mugen are drawn in very broad strokes. The modern language (including a fair bit of swearing) and nomenclature are reasonable language choices, but doesn't do much to bring you into the mindset and shoes of the characters. The map, for once, is a hindrance rather than a help as it is drawn with apparently no mind to scale (Nikara is supposedly enormous but the islands of Speer and Mugen - widely separated on the map - are within eyesight of one another) and ends up being more confusing than enlightening.

These elements are negligible compared to the fine character work that's employed, especially as Kuang has very little truck with telling yet another version of the hero's journey. There's also a relentless pace to the novel. In 500 pages it covers more ground than some 2,000-page trilogies, with dramatic shifts in setting, cast and tone as the book proceeds. Compared to fantasy sagas that take a thousand pages to clear their throat, there's something to be said for how quickly and determinedly The Poppy War gets down to business.

The Poppy War (****) is an accomplished fantasy novel, especially for a debut, with an unusually bleak and cynical tone to it that becomes much more pronounced as it continues (to the point where I'm glad the next book I'm reading is the much more positive Space Opera). The characters are interesting and well-developed, but the worldbuilding and magic could be a bit more developed. Hopefully we'll see this in the sequels, as The Poppy War is (as you may have guessed), the opening volume of a trilogy. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

HD version of BABYLON 5 may be possible after all

In a surprising move, Babylon 5 creator/showrunner/writer J. Michael Straczynski has revealed on Twitter (whilst announcing the news that B5 will be available on Amazon Prime next month, at least in the USA) that it may be possible to remaster the show in HD after all...with a few caveats.

The original Babylon 5 and EAS Cortez CG models re-rendered to modern HD standards (with a new background). Whilst the Warner Brothers film masters wouldn't look this good, they'd be big improvement over the DVD versions of the show.

To reiterate the previous situation: Babylon 5 was shot in widescreen on Super 35mm film - from which a HD image can be extracted from the original film stock rather easily - and then mastered (having CGI, sound and music added) on standard-definition video. The SD video master tapes of Babylon 5 have been the source for the original broadcast version of the show, the VHS and DVD releases and the various streaming options available over the last few years. It is not possible to extract a HD image from video, so that was assumed to be it for Babylon 5.

The only way to get a HD Babylon 5 would be to go back to the original film stock and extract a new HD image of all the live-action footage - which is time-consuming and tedious, but straightforward - and then re-render all of the thousands of CG effects and composite shots* in the show from scratch - which would be mind-bogglingly time-consuming and expensive. Star Trek: The Next Generation took this approach, but the show didn't have much CGI to re-render, as most of the effects were handled in-camera on film, so it was straightforward to remaster. It still took four years and cost $20 million, and took years to break even across multiple media releases and years of streaming on Netflix and CBS All Access. Babylon 5 would cost around twice that as it had far more CG than ST:TNG and in fact far more effects shots in total, despite being almost seventy episodes shorter in length. Given the relative obscurity of Babylon 5 compared to ST:TNG, this would appear to be commercially unviable.

(* a composite shot is one that combines live-action footage with effects, so any shot which has weapons being fired, the characters standing in front of a green or blue screen, interacting with CG characters etc)

However, Straczynski has completely upended this understanding of the situation with new information.

It turns out that at the end of every season of Babylon 5, Warner Brothers requested that every episode be completely re-mastered on 35mm film. This was for an archival copy to sit in the WB archives and to match the show as broadcast. This process involved taking the digital elements - including the original CG shots in their original resolution (noticeably higher than what we saw on TV from the video master) - and putting them on film.

So in order to get a full HD version of Babylon 5, all one has to do is extract a broadcast copy from each film reel, and since everything is on there already - including CG - that's all you need to do. It's extremely cheap.

This may sound too good to be true, and there is a hitch. Because this was an archival copy of the episode as already aired, it only involved the 4:3 TV format, not the widescreen master which only exists on video. Or to put it another way, Babylon 5's HD edition would only be available in 4:3, not widescreen, despite Babylon 5 being the first TV show ever filmed directly in widescreen. Which is both ironic and immensely frustrating. As long-term B5 fans know, the CGI for Babylon 5 only exists in 4:3, with the widescreen CG shots seen on the DVD release coming about from cropping the image (which is incredibly annoying, and loses information from the top and bottom of the image), so this would both restore the original CG image and in a much higher resolution, but at the cost of losing the live-action widescreen shots.

There is the possibility of going back to the original film stock for the live-action-only shots and combining those with this new master to get at least some of the show in widescreen HD at a still-reasonable price, but the series would need to switch to 4:3 for every CGI and composite scene, which would be rather distracting.

Whilst it's not a perfect solution, it does open up the possibility of seeing Babylon 5 in high definition, at level of visual quality never seen before. Whether Warner Brothers are prepared to invest such a remaster remains to be seen, but at least now, in the long, twilight struggle of rewatching your favourite twenty-year-old SF show, there is the possibility of hope.