The Short Review
5 reasons RED MARS is a must-read for the scifi fanatic and anyone remotely interested in planetary geology:
- RED MARS is a KSRobinson classic, published in 1992 and winner of the Nebula and the first of his acclaimed Mars Trilogy
- The story imagines life on Mars in a way that feels scientifically viable and compelling, therefore relevant to the current and growing conversation around Mars exploration
- Scientists are the narrators of this story. They are also the heroes, sometimes the villains, the problem solvers and the work horses. I was especially drawn to the “builder” character, Nadia
- The planetary geology content, naturally integrated into the story, is breathtakingly fun
- Despite being over 170K words long, KSR does not get bogged down in the “how would that ever be possible” science scenarios, but drives the story forward through characters and the politics that pressure a budding Martian community
The Longer Review
RED MARS tells the story of the first 100 scientists sent to Mars by a multi-national Earth entity called UNOMA, United Nations of Martian Affairs. The story PG-13 (for some sexual content) follows about 10 of those scientists closely, though many others are referred to and are part of the action in direct and indirect ways. The novel is broken up into eight parts and each of the parts has a different primary narrator. I do think Robinson’s choice on point of view works in a novel this long, adding a level of complexity and depth to the very audacious idea that Mars might be “tamed” by human beings. Robinson plays with themes around the idea that really smart people might be able to build a better civilization from scratch, and form some kind of utopia, but does not make the task easy on the idealogues within his story.
Various characters, all of whom are scientists in one discipline or another, give voice to ideas of alternative governing and living environments. The sharing of abundant resources is the initial reality for the first 100, but eventually, when new groups arrive on Mars, the corporations who have funded the exploration and building, come calling for the planet’s vast natural resources.
The conflict that arises is somewhat predictable and draws out the best and worst of the people in charge who are trying to manage a fragile, but quickly expanding human presence on Mars.
Meanwhile, Earth is falling into total chaos. Robinson does not spend any time showing the reader Earth itself, but shows it via news stories viewed by the inhabitants of Mars. Earth’s chaos is also a reason why many thousands of migrants are streaming to the new world. Robinson does lean left in his politics (proudly so) and sees corporate giants as the villain, though the villain is also amorphous in the story. Robinson’s ideas don’t come across as preachy to me. He’s a deep thinker and a thoughtful writer, so he understands the grittiness of governing and the probable impossibility of building that utopia even if one does start with 100 brilliant scientists.
Many science fiction readers will not mind the length of RED MARS, but at times, I confess to being a bit bored and wondered…Where is this story going? However, I did stick it out and the payoff was decent. It stands alone as a novel, without the kind of cliffhangers that drive you to the second book. Will I read the next two books in the trilogy? Probably yes, but not this summer.
OKJA, directed by Bong Joon-ho, written by Joon-ho and Jon Ronson (from a story by Joon-ho) is yet another example of Korean film genius. This film is set in a speculative future (despite the film’s timestamp of 2007)…the scifi aspects of the story have to do with genetics. First, the short review.
6 Reasons OKJA Will Delight
- Streamable for free on Netflix, family friendly (I would rate it PG-13 for violence)
- Although there are Korean characters who only speak Korean (therefore, yes, you’ll have to read subtitles), much of this film is either visual narrative or the characters speak English
- Funny and Heart-warming (the creature created for this film is cute and compelling)
- Thoughtful perspective on the food industrial complex
- With the child protagonist on a grand chase/adventure and with compassion at its core, this story feels like Studio Ghibli in all the best ways
Lately, when I look for something interesting and fun to watch, I gravitate toward Korean filmmakers. Why? They are some of the best storytellers around and Netflix is committed to working with them/putting their work out to the broadest audience. Moreover, Korean filmmakers don’t seem fixated on US/European political issues, which bore me these days. OKJA does touch on the industrial food complex…a global reality that is political. In particular, OKJA explores how meat is produced and processed for broad human consumption. But don’t let that stop you from watching this interesting and entertaining film. I think the questions that arise from the film are worth thinking about for every person on Earth, whether a vegetarian, vegan, or an omnivore. Kids watching this will also feel the implications of our “appetites”. It’s not a bad thing to help our youth understand that meat actually comes from creatures who live on this Earth with and among us. That’s a worthy conversation to have with our future leaders who will likely make choices for all of us about how we are to care for planet and creatures.
With an all-star cast, both Korean and US born actors inhabit this film. Stars like Tilda Swinton, Steven Yuen (The Walking Dead, Minari, Nope), Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, The Batman, The Fabelmans), Yoon Je-moon (The Man Nextdoor), and Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler, Donny Darko) inhabit this universe. The protagonist, Korean actress Ahn Seo-hyun, is fantastic as the stoic caretaker of OKJA. She is the studio Ghibli-styled determined child who will not give up on her friend. This story is as much about loyalty and friendship as it is about food politics. I loved OKJA and I hope your family does too.
4 Reasons I recommend EVIE/JOE, The Short Review
EVIE/JOE is first installment of The Walking Dead’s anthology series: Tales of the Walking Dead. Basically all of these tales will be in short-form, focusing on different characters each time, contained in one 45ish minute episode. EVIE/JOE is set in The Walking Dead universe which means there is a lot of gore, so consider this a PG-13 or R-rated flick. It’s not for everyone! You can watch this for free on Amazon Prime and possibly YouTube TV…still figuring that out.
I loved this short, but I love zombie films/stories and maintain a special fondness for The Walking Dead version of a post-zombie reality. Why might you want to watch?
- Believable and likeable characters (played by actors, Olivia Munn and Terry Crews)
- Well-done shorts like this must be targeted in its “one thing” it tries to do well and this short succeeded in doing that
- A familiar world, where context needs not be explained
- Decent tension and a surprising twist in the end
The Longer Review
First, I’ll say a little about the short form. There are a few reasons I appreciate shorts like EVIE/JOE. One is that I find it pleasurable to see a story, beginning, middle and end in one sitting. As a kid I loved The Twilight Zone for this reason. Second, the short form forces the story-teller to focus. My family members have heard me complain many times about a number of the more recent Marvel Universe films when there are way too many characters to properly give them all meaningful story arcs with the overall effect feeling flat and superficial (and for me, unsatisfying). There are three characters in this story. Four, if you count the dog. Third, the short form draws in amazing actors who want the chance to play a different/unique character but without the huge commitment of the series actor, who has to put the rest of his/her acting career on hold while the series is ongoing. This was an issue for Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes of The Walking Dead).
You could say the same about “guest” directors/writers. One short attracts very interesting directors and writers. I’m assuming some of these artists are fans of TWD universe but see room to add to that universe. Their vision can be surprising and wonderful.
EVIE/JOE begins with Joe, a survivalist living alone with his beloved Doberman. When the story opens, Joe is rewatching a football game. Civilization as we know it disappeared over a year before (see the carefully placed whiteboard in the first scene). Joe lives underground and seems to have enough electricity and food to stay happy and alive, but when his dog becomes lame, he must carry him up to the ground to go the bathroom and eventually, a group of zombies attack. The pup is bitten, dies and is buried by Joe. The subsequent flashes of Joe become increasingly depressing. A new level of suffering has entered into his life. Grief around his dog’s death and the reality that there is no one and nothing to really live for pushes him to venture out of his hole and seek another survivalist, someone he had contacted at a date when communication outside his hole was possible. That is when he meets Evie.
Their relationship becomes the focal point and draws out the true characters of them both. Both are lonely. Both are searching. There is a question about whether or not they will trust each other and whether or not they will succeed in finding what they most hope for. Evie is a hippy, who learned how to survive. Joe is a true survivalist. Their banter is funny and revealing.
It’s pleasurable to see a new setting here as well (in regards to The Walking Dead). This is the Upper Midwest, primarily Ohio and Michigan. There is evidence of survivors and evidence of death. The zombies aren’t the primary threat, but they’re around. As the audience learns pretty quickly in The Walking Dead universe, the zombies are way less scary than the hyper-terrified humans. This story is consistent on that front.
Eventually, there is an ultimate choice…choosing sides, choosing to trust or not trust and there is a moment of facing death. EVIE/JOE will not disappoint if this is the humanity you’re looking for.
Apple Plus released its third season of FOR ALL MANKIND this month. I have not viewed any of the 3rd season but I did watch all of 1 and 2 and loved them. What follows will be the short review and a longer review of season 1 and 2. If you’re convinced by the short review…start watching now. If you need a little more data, the longer review will give you a better idea of why this many hours of consumption might be worth your time. The show is rated R for a few racy sex scenes, but if your young person can handle that, the education piece is interesting. A bit of history can be etched out or explained as some of the “alternative” version comes across the screen. It’s portrayal of communist USSR rings true. It also captures something of the spirit of the age for each decade, especially the urgency around the space race of the 1960s.
The Short Review: 6 Reasons I Recommend FOR ALL MANKIND
- If you love alternative history narratives like The Man in the High Castle, you will appreciate this story
- If you love nostalgia settings and music, think Stranger Things, you will love being immersed in this story-world, which starts in the 1960s, but spans decades.
- Most of us appreciate great casting. FOR ALL MANKIND will not disappoint
- Top-notch production value, this includes the writing, the special effects and the acting
- Good pacing. A lot of action, drama and tension throughout
- A thoughtful story. A sprinkling of social commentary for our current time…some of that commentary I liked, some I felt was contrived, but the ideas are worthy of our attention
The Longer Review: (this review contains a couple of small spoilers)
The USSR and the US are in a space race in this alternative history, set during the cold war. The USSR has landed on the moon first, claimed it as territory, and has aims to build a military compound. This traumatizes the US as a nation. The first episode captures the feeling well as it feels like a gut-punch watching the Soviet flag raised on the moon and hearing the first words of the Russian Cosmonaut as he takes the first steps…The Walter Cronkite figure on the television news reports as follows:
The first man to set foot on the moon spoke just moments ago. “I take this step for my country, for my people, and for the Marxist-Leninist way of life. Knowing that today is but one small step on a journey that someday will take us all to the stars.”
FOR ALL MANKIND was created by Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek and Outlander), Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi. They take the “what if Russia had landed on the moon before we did” scenario and create a similar history to our own, but with differences that intrigue. The writers, I surmise, are progressive in their leanings because progressive values make their way into the script and into a historically white male dominated NASA long before reality. Sometimes, it feels heavy-handed, like the writers are checking the boxes of gender and racial diversity. However, the results do make for a delightfully diverse cast.
In episode 1, the audience meets Margo Madison (pictured above, played by Wrenn Schmidt) at the beginning point of her NASA career where she is the only woman in the male dominated control center. By season 2, she emerges as NASA’s head.
By the finale of season 2, women, a couple of non-binary individuals (though they keep their gender preferences a secret), African Americans and even a Mexican female immigrant who came over the border illegally as a child, are recruited by the NASA of FOR ALL MANKIND. And who can say it might not have been this way had the US felt the pressure of its failure to land first on the moon? Also, the Soviets promote the first female astronaut, shaming the US for its lack of representation.
All the characters are well-drawn and most are courageous and longsuffering in various ways. Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, Hanna and Altered Carbon) plays Ed Baldwin, an astronaut with a big mouth who in a drunken state reveals to a reporter how NASA lost the space race because of an aversion to risk. He is punished for the reveal (taken off astronaut duty and given a desk job), but his words capture NASA’s very real dilemma. In order to stay equal to, or to get ahead of the USSR, risks will have to be taken. Many characters of significance will lose their lives to achieve the elusive prize of space dominance.
This is where the series gives commentary on current society as it poses the questions that plague our century…Who will dominate the future? US and free societies (in general) have dominated the global order since WWII, but that prize came at a great cost to many of our ancestors. We have inherited something hard fought, but that inheritance is being challenged and chipped away by those who see themselves as more deserving of dominance…and perhaps they are, but some moments in history, even national failures, have the capacity to motivate a new generation of warriors. That message shines through in FOR ALL MANKIND.
First, the Short Review
6 Reasons I Recommend THE SILENT SEA
- Beautiful production overall, including visuals that underlie the creepy vibe
- Featured a number of my favorite Korean actors, a few you might recognize if Squid Game was on your watch list this past year
- Plenty tension and surprises/frights
- A number of science fiction and haunted house tropes embedded in the story and various characters (see more in longer review)
- The relationships and particularly, the relationship to authority feel authentically Korean. (also, see longer review)
- You know I love the miniseries genre, 1-hour installments of great storytelling that comes to a conclusion without an agonizing cliffhanger
SILENT SEA is the story about a mission to the moon to find water. I rate this series PG-13. No sexual content in this production, but there are dead bodies, and some gore. Family-friendly if your teens are mature. It’s a fun, suspenseful ride.
The first episode quickly gives the viewer the high stakes for this mission. Drought has plagued the Earth. Water is the resource most valuable and due to its scarcity, the planet has become a wasteland. Water is rationed to such a degree, many have suffered physically, billions have died. The wealthy nations have gone into space to find a water source. Most abandoned the idea of finding water on the moon after searching, but the South Korean government kept snooping. There has been a top-secret program at a large moon station that was believed to have borne fruit, but suddenly…the experiment falters. Everyone dies all at once on the moon station. The earthbound directors, including Heo Sung-tae (pictured near end of review) initiate another mission to go to the station and investigate the truth, but secrets pulse underneath the surface of this mission and become one aspect of tension in the story. The authorities hold their cards close and the military and science leaders do not push back, though they suspect something fishy. This may or may not be an aspect of Korean-specific deference to authority, but the screenwriter exploits what I understand as deference in a way that serves the story. Also, this is where the nuanced acting plays such a powerful role in the unfolding of the narrative. The audience can see in the face of Bae Doona, the slight suggestion of twitch, a blink, a stern jaw…we see it, but barely and it helps us know that she understands that she is being deceived. Yet, in most of the outward behavior, she acts the true soldier. Doona is great at this nuanced acting, but she’s just one, among a number of these performers, who pull off such nuance. In my mind, THE SILENT SEA showcases superb writing and better acting than Squid Game. Click for a review of Squid Game
Once the mission lands on the moon, what unfolds reminded me of Ridley Scott’s Alien, in all the best ways. Yes, there will be corpses, tunnels, darkness, betrayals, a terrible and contagious sickness, but there will be one character who keeps her eyes on the prize. Dr. Song (Bae Doona) is intent on discovering the truth. In part, she seeks the truth because her sister is one of the corpses and the holder of many of the secrets. Doona as Dr. Song, pictured above, is a female lead in the Korean zombie series, Kingdom. To see my review of Kingdom, click here
I beat this drum a lot but I do feel that Netflix streaming continues to find the best international productions and when it comes to science fiction, the Korean film/media community is putting out a lot of great product. Produced by Jung Woo-sung, directed by Choi Hang-Yong, who deftly handles the brilliant storytelling of screenwriter, Eun-Kyoi Park. Honestly, I think I could teach a five-hour course on writing with this series, moving scene by scene through the screenplay, in terms of a classic sci-fi thriller. Fun fact, this story (as did Scott’s Alien), closely follows the haunted house template. That means there are a few predictable tropes. The audience knows that the mission is doomed (at least the mission as it was originally conceived) as one by one, the team gets whittled down. Who will remain in the end…that is what the audience wonders. Regarding the various characters, the majority of them hold their own, each having his/her own arc, including the wise-cracking military scrub who just wants to go home…a longing the audience suspects will not be realized.
I highly recommend. THE SILENT SEA, and suspect that Netflix now has me pegged in its algorithm as a person who loves Korean-produced thrillers/sci-fi. I might need to give the Koreans their own category on my site. The product is so good, I can’t stop watching and when I watch, I always review.
ALL SYSTEMS RED is a story, entertaining and well-written, that one can read in about 4 hours. Rated PG-13 for adult themes. I read this novella on a flight from Minneapolis to Seattle. I flew on Delta and none of the airline’s tv/film options seemed very thrilling to me. I often try to see HBO or Showtime options when on a flight because I don’t subscribe to either of those services in real life. Thank goodness I had taken this book with me, hardback, but thin, lightweight and easy to pack because it’s only 127 pages.
And now, for my Short, No-Spoiler Review
I highly recommend ALL SYSTEMS RED for these 5 reasons.
- Original voice…the narrator has the appeal of an innocent, he/she is like a child, yet holds the capacity to narrate a futuristic society inhabited by humans and AI living and working together
- Genre bending…science fiction merged with mystery…in other words, a page-turner
- Thought-provoking ideas about AI and how future humans might understand morality/humanity in regards to AI
- Interesting world-building and a great set-up for subsequent stories
- ALL SYSTEMS RED would make a great audiobook. See the longer review for more
Martha Wells has created a fascinating universe of humanity working and living off Earth, in space, in places that can only be reached via light-speed travel. She doesn’t fixate on the physics of the issue (regarding traveling across vast distances) but focuses on the gritty work life of humans and their bots. In the author’s futuristic world, full AI exist as sex workers and security units (SecUnits) and other helps in life. Also, some humans adopt robotic parts (augmented humans). So, there is a mix of how humans have integrated with tech and within the story world, there is little “judgment” about these realities.
While this is all true, the AI mind that narrates this story has a judgment about itself and humans. The view is not completely skewed toward disgust for humans, though there is some leaning in this direction. Granted, I’ve only read the first 1.5 novellas. But what works in the narrative is that Wells has put forward a more dispassionate, yet charming view of the world the way it is. I highly recommend these novellas as entertainment and am slowly discovering how they speak into deeper moral questions around humanity’s race toward the future, a future in which robots and artificial intelligence will be embedded. These books might appeal to the YA reader because the narrator is endearing and “young” feeling. The value in their education would be the discussion around tech and humanity’s future.
Regarding the narrator. The voice is absolutely charming. I did not listen to the book, but can imagine the voice. This book would be a pleasure to listen to.
To buy the first book, click on All Systems Red
Four of the series in hardback can be bought together. Click on Murderbot Diaries
For the least expensive version to try out novella #1, click on Kindle version: All Systems Red
For the audio version of novella #1, click on Audio of All Systems Red
What to expect when watching SPACE SWEEPERS…Great storytelling, compelling characters and a science fiction setting that evokes the best of a well-produced space opera. This film is free on Netflix. I rate it PG-13 for some violence, but it’s a bit like Star Wars type violence. Not a lot of blood, but definitely carnage.
5 Reason to Watch Space Sweepers, The Short Review
- characters, they’re funny, quirky and smart…They reminded me of many beloved STAR WARS characters
- Special effects, on par with cinematic space opera’s like Star Wars
- Family friendly, nothing offensive for parents trying to figure out what to show their kids
- Excellent space battles
- An ultimate choice for the main character(s) that packs an emotional punch
The Longer Review
This film assumes a space opera vibe and so reminded me of Star Wars, yet felt original. The pacing of this screenplay gave exactly the right amount of info while embedding a few nuggets that made me go back a rewatch portions. That was rewarding and I loved the heartbeat of the story’s core…the transformation of a rogue…think of Han Solo and his journey.
Not that this story only bleeds a happy ending. There is a tragic trade that takes place, a brutal choice for the main character. However, the overall adventure ranked above my expectations. When I’m streaming something online like this, I’m not expecting brilliance, but when it’s Korean made, I am coming to expect top-notch production. The Korean film industry is doing something right by focusing on great storytelling and upping the game at every turn when it comes to investing in the visual feast. SPACE SWEEPERS is no exception.
To note: The villain in SPACE SWEEPERS reminded me (visually) of Jack Dorsey, former Twitter CEO, former CEO as of today, November 30, 2021. I wonder if the film maker has/had a bone to pick with Twitter.
I will continue to seek out, watch and review Korean-produced scifi/horror/speculative fiction because in the last 2 years or more, the flow of great content is undeniable. For more Korean-productions that I’ve reviewed, see:
I had barely heard of SQUID GAME until about a week ago, but now the buzz is everywhere. If you’re like me, you’re wondering…Why all the hype about this Korean dystopian series?
So, last night, I watched the 1st of the 9 episodes and love what is being set up. This episode features a giant robotic girl that rules over a game of Red Light Green Light, also the episode’s title.
Here’s what I can say about the opening.
- An introduction to a variety of well-drawn characters
- Especially, the main character, Seong Gi-hun played by Lee Jung-Jae, is a sympathetic hero, a financially desperate divorcee with a gambling problem living with his mother
- The story draws together hundreds of below average types or “losers” to compete with one another for an extraordinary financial prize. (Losers is the word used by the creator and he makes great pains to show the audience his characters’ failings).
- A creepy robot child with roving eyes that shoot bullets. Tis the stuff of nightmares.
SQUID GAMES would probably receive a PG-13 or maybe even an R rating for violence. I am watching the dubbed version. The dubbing hasn’t bothered me.
Update: After watching all of it, this series receives an R rating for sure and I don’t think it appropriate for teens. I don’t think the educational value is worth forcing a group to watch this. Many would not be able to tolerate the violence.
There is a dystopian flavor to the story and the world, but its reality is not so hard to believe. What I mean by that is that the game world is not fantastical, nor is it futuristic. This game could be happening today on an island somewhere. The audience does get a shot of the island in episode 1, as well as the back of the billionaire maniacal overlord, who watches via screen as the contestants compete and try to stay alive.
Creator, Hwang, worked for ten years to get SQUID GAME made. The traditional studios wouldn’t touch it, but alternative streaming is proving again, that fresh stories are out there, often outside the Hollywood bubble. Cheers to Netflix in particular for curating and promoting dramas and comedies we would never otherwise see.
Click on the links below for more of my reviews of “outside the Hollywood bubble” stories that deliver. The first two are also Korean-made
TRAIN TO BUSAN is the story of a father and daughter trying to make their way from Seoul to Busan. While on that journey, a viral outbreak that turns its victims into flesh-eating zombies, begins to ravage the country.
TRAIN TO BUSAN, set in Korea, is subtitled for English (and other language) speakers. This film was written for the screen by Sang-Ho Yeon and Joo-Suk Park and directed by Yeon. The film would probably receive a PG-13 rating for gore, the zombie kind, nothing worse that what you might see on AMC’s The Walking Dead. You can view this film for free if you are an Amazon Prime member. I loved it. In fact, I think the writing is brilliant.
Click here for the film’s trailer.
- Perfect writing/storytelling, including the pacing that ramps up quickly at about 10 minutes in
- Sympathetic characters. The father/daughter story at the heart puts this zombie flick in a category above most others
- Another fresh setting. By now, if you’ve read a few of my reviews, you know I am an advocate of consuming stories told outside of the Hollywood bubble
- Once the action starts, it doesn’t stop and much of it takes place in the close confines of a train or a train station
- A pitch-perfect ending
You may or may not be a fan of zombie stories. If you’re a fan, you have plenty to choose from and have probably already seen TRAIN TO BUSAN. If not, drop everything you’re doing and watch now. However, even if you don’t love zombie flicks, this story and the characters that inhabit it might win you over.
Seok-woo, a divorced father of one 10yo (or so) daughter, Soo-an, is a fund manager who works long hours. While he works, his mother cares for his daughter. They are based in Seoul, Korea. On the day the audience meets this family (the first minutes of the film), Soo-an is anticipating her birthday on the following day. She longs to be with her mother on her birthday. The problem, her mother lives in Busan, so Seok-woo must decide if he will accompany his daughter to Busan during a time when he is overwhelmed with work. He decides he will. In the first minutes, the audience has learned he has NOT been the most attentive father due to his demanding job. Is it guilt or something else that urges him to make this decision?
The decision is a sacrifice from his perspective, though he assumes he will be able to go very early in the morning, deposit his daughter in Busan and still return to Seoul to work a half day. The train trip (normally) is about 3 hours.
However, as they embark on the journey, a few unusual situations emerge, scenes the audience anticipates and knows are signs of something gone wrong.
The father and daughter board the train. The audience meets a number of the passengers, those who will become important characters in the story, and at the last minute, the zombie sickness manages to board with them.
The rest of the narrative is not a simple zombie story. Seok-woo must fight and learn to sacrifice, not just for his daughter, but for others. While he journeys, he will have many teachers, including his daughter. Amid all the stress, he grows and changes.
I gave this film a 10-star rating on IMdb, the highest available as I am becoming a huge fan of South Korean cinema. I LOVE the epic nature of the stories that are emerging from their film makers and will seek out more in the coming year. *stay tuned!