HumbleBundle: THQ/Nordic PlayStation Encore

Usually the HumbleBundle is just a digital download, generally for PC through Steam, so they can raise as much money as possible by selling unlimited bundles, with the premium content available at higher tiers.  Not so with this one.

I don’t know if PlayStation is stingy, or if THQ/Nordic has licensing issues that keep them from giving away unlimited bundles, but the current bundle is a very limited affair.  The first night, the top tier – which included Darksiders Warmastered and Darksiders II: The Deathinitive Edition – sold out; I actually watched the available licenses drop in real time.

So if the premium tier is gone, why am I sending you there?

Because I didn’t go for the top tier myself; I didn’t have much interest in the Darksiders games or the motocross games that were added to that level.

And because as sci-fi fans, the mid-tier is where it’s at.

I’ve passed on Destroy All Humans and Destroy All Humans 2 in the past, but now that I’ve tried the first, I’ll admit: I was wrong.  As a fan of classic, B-movie science fiction, this is the coolest game I’ve played – better than The Deadly Tower of Monsters (which is a great game, but the “director’s commentary” can get a little annoying).  Mars Attacks! is probably the apt comparison – put yourself in the shoes of an invading alien, mess around with farm animals (telekinetically tossing cows is way more fun than it should be), zap aggressive farmers, use your flying saucer to blow up buildings and vehicles, and for the pre-adolescent in all of us, chase humans with your anal probe and watch them cover their butts after you zap them.  I’ve just started the game, it doesn’t challenge you with cool special moves, you probably won’t impress your gamer friends when you tell them, “Man, I beat Destroy All Humans!” – but you’ll have a lot of fun playing it, you’ll enjoy the mindless destruction (without the realistic graphics that make the violence a little uneasy in newer games), and you’ll try to save the Furon race at the expense of a few hysterical humans.

For sci-fi fans, there’s also Battle Worlds: Kronos (which is downloading as I write), and Deponia, another game I’ve wanted to try for a long time, but never gotten around to; Red Faction looks like a corporate/political thriller set on Mars, but I’ll admit, it will be a while before I get to that.  If fantasy is more your thing, The Legend of Kay (Anniversary Edition) is one I’ve had for a while, and not bad if you like your martial arts mixed with cutesy animals – it’s not quite Watership Down, but it’s pretty decent.  The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 is decent to start, but today I didn’t have much patience for a more text-based game; and ArcaniA: The Complete Tale is another I’ve been curious about, and will try next time I’m in more of a fantasy mood.

But for me, the motivation was the sci-fi.  There are still 28,000+ keys at the $8 tier, but with all things HumbleBundle, you’re also limited by time, so check it out before October 10.  Even if you’re just curious, it’s tough to beat nine games for PS4 for $8, and a portion of that goes to Hand in Hand International, an organization that supports entrepreneurs in developing countries.

Go forth – have some fun, do some good.

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Book Review: Star Wars Imperial Handbook: A Commander’s Guide

I already had two of the other Star Wars “handbooks” when I picked this one up: the Jedi Code and the Book of the Sith, both in their funky deluxe containers with lights and mechanics that open like you’re uncovering the esoteric wisdom of the light and dark sides of the cosmos.  Both were well worth it, and are among my favorite Star Wars collectibles.

For some reason, I passed on the deluxe presentation of the Imperial Handbook, though I had high hopes for the book.  I’ve been messing around with an idea for Stormtrooper fanfic for years, and thought that I might be able to get some insight into “authentic” Imperial operations in this book, purportedly written before the destruction of the first Death Star, and annotated by many of our favorite Rebels after the destruction of the second Death Star.  It covers the essential period I was looking for.

Even after the first chapter, however, I could tell this book was non-essential.  I could suggest an alternate title, though: “Let’s Be Bad Guys!”

What appeals to me about the stormtrooper’s story is that it can contain some subtlety, some moral growth.  Sure, as viewers of movies with stories that took place long ago in a galaxy far, far away, we can pretty quickly identify that the Empire is bad.  There may be some room for ambiguity at the start: we first encounter them trying to recover stolen plans, a legitimate military security mission.  That Vader dude seems a little over the top, but beyond that, just a bunch of guys trying to maintain order.  But once they blow up Alderaan, just to make a point, you’ve clearly identified the villain of the story.

Still, despite their faceless conformity, there’s something very human about the Stormtrooper face of the Empire.  You see it in the two Stormtroopers chatting, who are misdirected by Obi-Wan Kenobi as he shuts down the tractor beam in the Death Star.  I see it in the way the scout troopers and the regular Stormtroopers are confused and overpowered by a small band of rebels and a local population of Ewoks on Endor.  I imagine people all across the galaxy who see the reports of the Rebellion creating chaos, attacking the only order they know, who prefer the security the Empire offers.  I imagine that just in our country today, there are plenty of youth who go into the Imperial military because it’s a steady job, guaranteed pay, a chance to acquire skills and a trade they’ll use the rest of their lives, a chance to get off whatever rock they feel stuck on and see the galaxy.

C’mon: Hate the war, but support the troops.

Imperial Handbook lacks any of that desired subtlety, and suffers for it.  The thing that allows dictatorships to rise, and for them to maintain some level of support among the populations they oppress, is that their rhetoric has some universal appeal – at least as long as you don’t look into the reality underlying it.  Generally, if you look at the official doctrines of totalitarian regimes, the ideals are peace and prosperity for all (though, as Orwell would have put it, some might be more equal than others).  As long as you can manipulate the media to separate the doctrine from the gritty reality, you can keep the population pacified, even gain some support.

Imperial Handbook doesn’t go that route.  Among the purposes of the Imperial Navy:  “Bombarding planets – annihilating infrastructure with pinpoint precision from orbit.”  Gee, don’t think that will show up in any Rebel recruiting lit.  But it’s not enough to show that the Imperials are evil; the Handbook presents two kinds of bad guys:  buffoonish bad guys, and the pure evil bad guys.  With his widows peak and hawkish nose, it was never hard to imagine Grand Moff Tarkin sitting in his office chair, fingers pressed together as he considered his next nefarious deed; his writings on “The Imperial Doctrine” simply add the “bwaa-hah-hah.”  An aside by then-Captain Ozzel about “Innovations in Imperial Naval Tactics” shows the comical side, punctuated by an annotation from Han Solo: “I can’t make fun of this.  It’s just too easy.”

And Han’s commentary on Ozzel’s insights is perhaps the biggest problem with the whole book.  We see the familiar names, on both sides: Tarkin, Ozzel, Piett, Mothma, Leia, Han, Luke, Wedge.  The Handbook does almost nothing to expand the Star Wars universe; instead, it promotes the view that the only things that are of consequence in the Star Wars universe are those shown in the (Disney-owned) canon.  Even before the Battle of Yavin and the destruction of the first Death Star, Red Squadron is identified as the elite Rebel Starfighter unit, and Wedge Antilles as one of the prime Imperial targets; perhaps Palpatine and Vader meditated on the future and provided these tidbits to the Handbook’s authors – or perhaps the book’s real author just took the easy route, and put together something that looks nice but lacks any substance.

The Imperial structure is potentially fascinating, and if you’re looking for an alternative to the Imperial Handbook, I’d strongly recommend getting your hands on the Imperial Sourcebook (2d ed.), published by West End Games for their Star Wars roleplaying game.  Like the Imperial Handbook, the Sourcebook is presented as Rebel intelligence about the workings and equipment of the Galactic Empire, much of it presented as material obtained directly from Imperial sources.  It’s not just that the material is better organized, though – it doesn’t pander to the reader, and it treats both its subject and its audience with greater respect.  And even if the Galactic Empire is rotten at its core, it was strong – and cunning – enough to take control of the Core systems, and expand its hold.  This requires more cold calculation than the evil will and dumb luck the Imperial Handbook would suggest.

I bought the Imperial Handbook hoping for the kind of well thought out “artifact” of the Galactic Empire that I had come to expect from my Jedi Code and Book of the Sith.  Sure, I expected it to look like propaganda, but with the number of Stormtrooper cosplayers and video games, I expected a little more “Glory of the Empire” stuff, more than the, “It’s funny and sad because that arrogant buffoon will be force-choked later!”

With that thought, maybe it’s propaganda after all.  The best explanation for the Imperial Handbook is that it’s a forged document created by lazy Rebel propagandists in an attempt to discredit the Galactic Empire.  One starts to suspect that Disney must be a hive of Rebel scum.  That’s a better explanation than that they disrespect their fanbase so much that they expect us to throw our money at anything labelled “Star Wars.”

#TBT Classic: “A Boy and His Dog”

In my return to a #TBT Classic review, we’ve got a bit of a two-fer: both the original novella by Harlan Ellison, and the 1975 film starring Don Johnson.  But while I went for both (I had the film on my Amazon Prime watch list, but wanted to read the short story/novella first), you certainly don’t have to.

The story is basically the same: we’re in a post-apocalyptic world, with the surface world a free-for-all of gangs (“roverpaks”) and “solos,” and the “decent” people living, literally, underground in controlled communities.  Vic, our protagonist, lives on the surface, with his dog, Blood (hence, the name).  Vic is completely amoral, as the surface world has devolved to be concerned only about survival; Vic’s interests are limited to finding food, finding sex, and avoiding death.  Occasionally Vic and Blood find some base civilized settlement, run by various gangs, where he can watch “beaver flicks,” and the other men there will overtly masturbate.  Vic is aided in his quests by Blood, with whom he has a telepathic bond; one of Blood’s particular skills is locating females, so Vic can “get laid.”

Blood identifies a girl (Quilla June) while Vic is watching a beaver flick at the movie house, and when they leave, the pair follow her to a YMCA, where Vic intends to rape her.  Unfortunately for Vic, an attack by a roverpak (who likely also became aware of the female) delays his gratification.  Our young anti-hero defeats the roverpak, claims his prize – then deals with the shock of learning that females may have their own desires, and is confronted with the question of . . . love.

Now, I hope your love is pure and true, but that doesn’t make the best drama, so naturally, love is followed by betrayal, which is followed by revenge, which is followed by redemption.  By the end of the story, there is more to life than feeding and getting laid.

Ellison’s original story is a masterpiece of post-apocalyptic fiction.  He was perfect in crafting Vic’s voice – Vic knows the basics about how the world became a dystopian nightmare, but he doesn’t dwell on it.  From our perspective as reader and observer, we can see the dystopia; Vic only sees the challenges of survival, and his carnal desires.  When he is confronted with the “downunders,” those who live in the underground settlements, he views their regimented lives as unnatural.  Vic kills for his own survival, and rapes for his own pleasure, but he doesn’t come across as “good” or “bad,” because such judgments have no place in Vic’s world.  Between Vic and Blood, the telepathic dog usually comes across as the more rational creature.  Still (as the title would suggest, as I don’t want to give many spoilers), Vic demonstrates growth over the course of the story, finally forming meaningful emotional connections.

Ellison’s prose puts you in the mind of the protagonist – we see the world as he sees it.  While the language is crude and the vocabulary sparse, the language evokes the constant action, the reader can share in Vic’s sensations, whether anxious, angry, desirous, even his confusion as he starts to appreciate the needs of others.

By comparison, the movie was a huge disappointment.  It could be my own bias, but from the start Don Johnson didn’t feel right for the role, and it goes beyond knowing how his career would unfold; already 25 when the film was released, he doesn’t exactly scream, “boy.”  I don’t know that I have any complaint about the particular dog used, but the telepathy didn’t work well – it didn’t feel like Blood’s voice as much as it felt like a disconnected foil for Vic (you could argue that this is a possible way of handling a telepathic dog; all I’m saying is that it didn’t work).  Right from the start, “boy” and “his dog” had major problems.

The movie really falls apart when Vic goes “downunder,” though.  In Ellison’s novella, Topeka (the post-apocalypse underground settlement) feels bizarre and unnatural to the savage Vic; but what makes Topeka surreal is how foreign it is to Vic’s reality, and the dangers are those that will naturally accompany a closed, homogenous, highly-regulated society.  Producer and director L.Q. Jones isn’t content to let the juxtaposition of Vic with a puritan society define the surreal; instead, he takes the film through scenes that look like cutting room remnants from A Clockwork Orange.

Blood’s voice could simply be the result of the limitations of the technology of the time, but the major problems I had with the film were more related to the characterizations of the actors, and the choices made by the director in presenting the dystopian future.  Mad Max came out in 1979, and had no significant special effects that weren’t available in 1974-75, but is exponentially better in portraying a crumbling society.  A Boy and His Dog was well-received when it was released, winning a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and earning Johnson a Saturn Award for Best Actor.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t stand the test of time.

Fortunately, the novella does.  If you haven’t previously read or seen “A Boy and His Dog,” skip the movie and go straight for the story; you’ll finish it in under an hour (less time than the movie), and your mind will create a world far more vibrant and immediate than the film does.  If you’ve seen the film, whether you liked it or not, you owe it to yourself to check out the novella anyway – it will either redeem the story for you, or show you why “the book is so much better than the movie” even if you liked it.

#TBT Classic Movie: The Iron Giant

For the return of #TBT Classic Movie reviews, we’re really going with more of a tossback, that fashions itself to be a throwback.  But even though it is relatively recent (1999), it was an instant classic.

Many of the best stories are ones that you want to hear again and again.  The Iron Giant doesn’t explore much new ground, but the story it tells is done better than most predecessors and imitators alike.  There’s a weird, lonely boy, raised by a single, hard-working mother.  He looks for friends everywhere, bringing home stray animals, until one night, he brings home a giant robot from outer-space.  Intrepid (and annoying) government man investigates reports of strange goings-on in the boy’s small town, eventually discovering the secret – and bringing the full power of the military down on an alien that poses no threat until cornered.  Climatic finish when the big government men find out they were wrong about the nature of the alien.

It has its wrinkles, but that’s the basic story.  From my own childhood, it’s E.T., or Pete’s Dragon.  It’s countless other movies that I can’t name because they don’t resonate like The Iron Giant.

The setting for the oft-told tale is Rockwell (as in Norman), Maine – as wholesome a place as you could hope to find, where you can get your apple pie at the diner where Hogarth’s mom earns her living.  The time is the 1950’s, shortly after the Sputnik launch, when American’s are leery of foreign powers.  A fisherman with a reputation for drunkenness is the first to see the Giant; he’s ridiculed while telling his story; only Dean, the town’s resident beatnik/artist/junkyard operator, stands up for the man, which cements the “crackpot” assessment.  The outcasts are one of the major themes of the movie, as Dean, Hogarth, and the Giant all struggle to find acceptance – and in that struggle, they find each other.

There’s a none-too-subtle critique of the (once and future) arms race that pops up midway through the movie.  While the Giant’s origin is never revealed, he is clearly some kind of defensive weapon – whenever he identifies a potentially threatening weapon, his robotic mood changes, and he attempts to destroy the threat.  You can imagine how well this goes over with the army and the intrepid (and annoying) government man; being all-too-human, they fail to appreciate their own threatening stance, and take the Giant’s defensive actions as an inherent threat – one which must be eliminated.

It’s in relation to this last point that the film makes its most endearing point.  Hogarth and the Giant both struggle with the Giant’s power, especially since neither appears aware of his origin; the struggle intensifies once the Giant becomes aggressive in his programmed defensive mode.  Midway through the film, as the relationship starts to turn from wonder to friendship, Hogarth and the Giant are together in the barn at Hogarth’s home, with Hogarth sharing his comic books with the robot.  Hogarth and the Giant both notice the resemblance of the Giant’s appearance to Atomo, a villain; but Hogarth believes the Giant is more like Superman, who uses his immense powers for good.  The Giant himself prefers to identify with Superman, even when Hogarth and the Giant are playing a form of Heroes and Villains in Dean’s junkyard.  In the film’s defining moments, the resounding message is that we draw our power to change the world by our ability to define ourselves, rather than allowing others to define us.

The Iron Giant is a rare movie that just does everything right.  Its classic appeal no doubt comes from its 1970’s style animation with a 1950’s setting – the heyday of animation for those of us who grew up on Ralph Bakshi and Rankin & Bass, set in the golden-era of science fiction.  The Cold War paranoia is deftly handled, both satirizing our unfounded fears of the time, but moralizing that we still rush to judgment in seeing threats where we have incomplete information.  But the messages and the moralizing just support a strong story, rather than overwhelm it.  This is a family movie that could have been made 25 years earlier but will still be relevant 25 years from now, and one that’s just so much fun to watch that you’ll enjoy it whether you’re watching it with your kids, your parents, your significant other – or just on your own.

Life on The Edge

One of the keys to success is supposed to be a morning routine.  I figure one of the keys to creative success is to always stay curious.  While I sometimes come short on both, I strive to blend the two, hoping for some kind of Voltron-style mega-success.  Whatever.  Worldly success may be elusive, but I do find that injecting exercises to satisfy my creativity and curiosity into my morning routine makes me more excited about my morning routine, which is important on those mornings when bed just feels so good.

Often when I shop thrift stores, the “good deal” is the one that makes you say, “Oh my God, they have no idea what they have here!” and you snatch it as if the elderly gentleman down the aisle was just moments from doing the same thing, and you watch furtively as the cashier rings it up, hoping they don’t decide the bargain basement price was in error.  But a few years ago, I snagged a much better deal of an entirely different variety.

To keep my curiosity fed, Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and a handful of smaller thrift stores has stocked the most impressive library of books I will someday read; my friends should be jealous, but I think they mostly just wonder how I navigate around the stacks of books filling every room but the kitchen and bathroom.  To be fair, the stack of books next to the bed is decidedly less impressive when it is (a) static, and (b) covered with a visible film of dust.  The “read” pile grows at a snail’s pace compared to the burgeoning “to read” pile.

With little thought of anything beyond the 89 cent sticker price, I added What We Believe But Cannot Prove.  The title was catchy, and so was the line drawing of a chicken and an egg on the cover.  “Someday,” I thought, as it found a home on a relatively stable stack in my apartment.

In that case, “someday” came relatively quickly (I’m sure there are other books from that trip which remain boxed or buried on shelves).  As I perused the table of contents, I found it was an anthology, a collection of answers to the title question by leading scientists and cultural figures.  These weren’t in-depth answers, generally; they were aimed at lay – but curious readers.  Readers, say, like myself.

The next thing I found out was that the book was not a standalone, but was part of a series; What Have You Changed Your Mind About, What Are You Optimistic About, and the wickedly cool titled What Is Your Dangerous Idea soon joined it on my shelf.  The books – and the questions on which they are based – are the brainchild of John Brockman, editor and publisher of Edge.org, a website dedicated to exploring the cutting-edge of science and culture; think Wired meets All Things Considered.  Every year, Brockman sends out his question to scores of sophisticated thinkers, and compiles their responses in a book, up to the recently released Know This.  In the true spirit of an intellectual community, you don’t have to follow my path and purchase a growing stack of books to find out the enlightening answers to these burning questions; Brockman curates the answers at Edge, where they can be found under “Annual Question.”

My reason for the book stack on my desk goes beyond eclectic (and questionable) decorating tastes, however.  I do have this funny belief, even in my relative poverty, that a simple way to support groups doing work I appreciate is to buy their product.  As I indicated, my poverty is relative, so the $10 – $12 I spend on a book every year (sometimes more, as Brockman has also started publishing anthologies of more in-depth works, thus far covering Culture, Thinking, The Universe, and the all-inclusive Life) might help supplement the site so some non-relatively poor student may end up being inspired, and eventually make her own contribution to the conversation.

But the more practical – and more personal – reason for the stack of Edge question books on my desk goes back to my morning routine.  Almost all of the answers are between 1 – 5 pages, which involves a time commitment of 5 – 10 minutes.  This stack, unlike most of my others, doesn’t grow but once a year – instead, it revolves.  Most mornings, I take the book off the top of the stack, open it randomly, and read the first unread article I find; when I’m done, the book moves to the bottom of the stack.  I never know what I’ll get; in the past week, I’ve read articles about the erosion of black holes, whether artificial “intelligence” is even possible, and the continued relevance of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.  It’s unlikely that on any random morning any of these topics would be current in any of the news outlets I use – but with the Edge books as part of my morning routine, it’s common that these topics stay on my mind long after the article is read, and broaden my view of the world – and beyond.

Not a bad deal for $12 a year, and 5 minutes a day.

Vintage Sci-Fi Month

Found this on Twitter, and thought it might be of interest to anyone who follows – or occasionally looks in on – this space.  The good people at Vintage Sci-Fi Month celebrate January as – are you ready for it? – Vintage Sci-Fi Month.  The goal of the month is to read (yes, read – it’s for books, not movies) a science/speculative fiction novel written in any year before you were born.  Since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often considered the first science fiction novel – not to mention countless classics by the likes of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, even Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde – no one has an excuse not to participate.  Unless they just don’t want to.

I’m taking advantage of the opportunity to finally read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.  I’ve actually been avoiding the acclaimed Amazon series because I would prefer reading the book first.  I’m not entirely sure where “alternative history” fits in the realm of speculative fiction, but since the novel won the Hugo Award in 1962, higher authority than myself has classified the book as science fiction.

So take this chance to look on your bookshelf (or browse your Kindle) and pick up that classic you’ve been meaning to get to.  Then share on Twitter with #VintageSciFiMonth to see what others are reading.

Fantastic Friday Film Review: Fantastic 4 (2015)

I was actually excited about this movie when I first saw the trailer, but then . . . didn’t watch it. I was in a busy time in my life, both in work and personal matters. I was also swayed by reviews, one of which included the phrase “worst film of 2015”; well, I certainly wasn’t going to spend my hard-earned cash on that, was I? Wasn’t going to blow my money on buying it, and when it finally debuted on Showtime a couple months ago, it just never seemed urgent enough to figure out when it was on, then schedule my time around it. (I’ve been told about the wonders of DVR – and for some reason, I refuse to use it. I like streamining – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime – but recording to watch when it’s convenient to me? If I can’t watch something when it’s on, I don’t need to watch it . . .)

Anyway, I was picking up a few things the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and saw the remnants of Walmart’s Black Friday super cheap movie deal – which included Fantastic 4, appropriately priced at the $4 tier (okay, $3.96). I was still procrastinating on my writing that day (or was I just setting myself up for a dramatic finish to NaNoWriMo?), so the movie I had never made time for got watched right away.

And I’m writing a review of a movie that’s not a throwback, not a classic – because while it is neither throwback nor classic, I feel like the “professionals” steered me wrong. And I know that 2015 was not such an amazing year for movies that this might have been considered the “worst” by comparison.

But I think comparison is the place to start – and where Fantastic 4 may have suffered, unfairly. Marvel has become a brand unto itself since the first Iron Man film came out – you can easily find sites which will help you figure out how the characters and stories weave in and out of almost all films since Iron Man, and we all know that we have to stay through the entire list of credits to see some 30-60 second teaser of what is to come in the Marvel-verse.

Fantastic 4 doesn’t play that game.

When I’ve read the Fantastic Four, there’s always something a little different about them from your regular superhero titles. They manner in which they got their super powers is part of the key to the whole “Fantastic Four” story – first and foremost, this is a group of adventurers. In the ill-fated first adventure, the group is genetically altered, giving them their super powers – those in the case of Ben Grimm, being labeled as “The Thing” is often as much curse as his super strength and near invulnerability are fantastic powers. But if their genetic alterations/mutations give them “fantastic” physical abilities, their true “powers” have nothing to do with their accident: Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic is one of the world’s smartest people; Johnny Storm/Human Torch is fearless and bold, almost to the point of recklessness; Sue Storm/Invisible Woman is the emotional core of the group, keeping them all grounded; Ben Grimm/The Thing is unmatched in his loyalty to his friends, and his stone hard exterior protects a tender soul.

The 2005 version of the super family featured big stars, witty dialogue, spandex costumes – everything you would want in a standard superhero movie. It was pure entertainment, and while Jessica Alba would have had male audiences drooling as much in 1961 as she did in 2005, the story itself comes right out of the comic’s origin. The 2007 sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, felt a little more contemporary in its issues, but the characters stick with the standard, Silver Age camp. Good stuff, fun for the whole family, watch it comfortably with your kids – or your mom.

The 2015 reboot is a different animal. It’s grittier, an attempt to place people with super powers in our very real world. While the Baxter Foundation is clearly well funded (and run by a stereotypically creepy board of directors), the characters themselves are middle class geniuses, and even Franklin Storm’s children, Sue and Johnny, are there because of their abilities; even Victor von Doom, traditionally an Eastern European despot, is portrayed more as an underground hacker/scientist than any kind of aristocrat. Just “going into space” no longer excites the imagination as it must have in 1961, so the group is instead working on teleportation, and the group gains their super abilities in an accident on their return from another world.

What I liked about the story so much was that it wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from superhero movies – this is the Fantastic Four presented as a sci-fi story. Because of licensing, it doesn’t play with the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe; had Disney been in control of the production rather than 20th Century Fox, we would have certainly seen Tony Stark (or at least had some kind of congratulatory note from him), or Dr. Bruce Banner may have been consulted on some technical issue. Fantastic 4 doesn’t even feature the gratuitous cameo by Stan Lee (which is a little sad, since the group is one of his finest creations). You can’t do the Fantastic Four without getting into their physical powers, but this story puts the focus on the science: putting together the project team, building the project, adapting to the accident, trying to return to the alternate planet in hopes of reversing (or recreating) the conditions when the powers were obtained.

That’s not to say that this is a great movie – I just don’t think the “worst of the year” ratings are justified. The sci-fi focus makes it interesting, and it had the potential to be one of the better Marvel movies out there – but it wasn’t. The plot almost is forgetten in the attempt to set up the scene; by the time Victor comes back as “Doom,” there’s little time left to set up tension, and the film goes right into “final battle” mode. The film begins with the charming, if somewhat cheesy, young Reed Richards building a teleporter in his garage; it might have been a little better had they put a few more years between that opening scene and the main events of the story, as it felt a little forced to have a group of late teens working on teleportation (with Reed presumably learning it . . . how? The indictment of the public school science department makes it clear he learned little there); Miles Teller would have worked just as well in his mid- to late-20’s, and the story may have been a little more authentic – and could have developed a more mature relationship between Reed and Sue, which is hinted at, but like most of the “plot,” is unexplored. The creepy government exploitation angle at this point has almost become cliché, and pulled what plot there was away from the science fiction, and into the B-movie realm.

Fox had initially intended to do at least one more film in this series; based on this film, I would definitely be interested in seeing it, and with the “origin” out of the way, developing the plot in the sequel could actually redeem this movie. Another possibility – but an unlikely one, since it would be a “business” issue – would be to throw this into the Netflix realm. The gritty feel of this film matches what Netflix has done with Daredevil and Luke Cage, and with a limited season – 7-10 episodes – there would be plenty of room to explore the relationships between the characters, build tension with villains who might appear more grey than black and white. That kind of story telling might have saved this film from its fate – instead of the forced ending on “Planet X,” Victor could have escaped the government facility, and the tension could have been built up with Doom being a more tragic villain, and a finale that would do justice to one of Marvel’s flagship franchises.