Friday, August 29, 2008

War Games

I was watching War Games on cable last night. It offers some interesting insights on how things have changed since 1983.

First, there is Matthew Broderick who was 21 at the time but looked convincing as a teenager. He played enough roles as a teen or young adult that it is difficult to think of him as being in his late 40s.

This was the first movie to feature hackers or home computers (the IBM PC hadn't been introduced when the movie was made). The computer that Broderick uses is an Imsai 8080. It was one of the first home computers made (I think it was the second). By the time the movie came out, the computer was obsolete. Most home computers made by 1983 were plain boxes, much like today. The script specified this computer, probably because it had lots of switches and lights.

When the Imsai 8080 came out, computers didn't have a bios to tell them how to load the operating system. The very first home computers didn't even have an operating system. In order to run a program you wrote it in assembly code on paper then hand-translated the assembly code into machine instructions. Finally, you used all of the switches on the front to enter your program, one bit at a time. This required toggling at least 8 switches per instruction.

The movie was meant as a message movie about nuclear disarmament. It begins with a sequence where a couple of soldiers log into a missile silo. They are given the order to launch (as a test) and fail. As a result the human element is wired out of the launch sequence. This sets the tone of the movie and is a plot point later when a self-aware computer decides to initiate a nuclear strike. The first time I saw the movie we got in late and missed the opening sequence. This changed the tone of the movie completely. I was quite surprised how different the tone was when I saw the whole movie.

The movie features a self-aware computer, the WOPR. From it's case it seems to have been built in the 1950s but it is still far advanced over 2000s technology. That's movies.

Here is a link describing how the technology was set up.

In 1983 the nation was convinced that we had to do something immediately about nuclear disarmament before the world ended. Compare that with today's urgency about global warming.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Where did Superman Come From?

There are two current theories about the origins of Superman. The newest one starts with the father of writer Jerry Siegel dying during a robbery. A year later he invented a bullet-proof hero who could stop any crime. Did the one lead to the other? Maybe but there was another strong influence.

Meanwhile, a character in Funky Winkerbean who writes comic books was assigned to write Superman. He is suffering from writer's block so one of the other characters took him to the house that Siegel lived in when he created Superman. The writer imagines Siegel lying in bed, bored. Beside him is a copy of Philip Wylie's book Gladiator.

Wikipedia says: The novel is widely assumed an inspiration for the character Superman,[1] though no confirmation exists that Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel was influenced by it.
For anyone who has read the novel and the early issues of Superman, there is no question about the novel's influence. In the novel, a scientist discovers a way to give superhuman strength and speed to any organism as long as his treatment is applied in early development. After a successful test on a kitten, he tries it on his unborn son.

The experiment is a total success. The scientist's son is superhuman. He can hurl boulders like pebbles. He can run at fantastic speeds and make incredible leaps. He is nearly indestructible as he discovers in World War I the first time he is shot with a machine gun. But he has limits. He is only one man and he eventually tires. He has to hide his strength or people fear him.

During the novel he tries several things. He is a football star and a soldier. He tries cleaning up Washington DC. None of these work out. Eventually he decides to create a city of people like himself. He challenges god to stop him and is killed by lightening.

In the first couple of issues of Superman, he goes undercover as a football player. He stops a war. The cover of the first issue where Superman smashes one car into an other happened while he was cleaning up Washington.

And of course, in the beginning Superman couldn't fly. He just leaped, just like Wylie's character. Superman didn't have X-ray vision or any of his other powers, either. He was strong, fast, and indestructible.

It is clear that Siegel and Shuster used Wylie's character but they made their own changes. They gave him a costume and a secret identity. They reasoned that someone in a flashy costume wouldn't scare people. They also changes the source of his powers. Instead of a scientist working in secret, they had Superman come from a different planet. By far the biggest divergence from Wylie was that Superman was successful at everything he tried and that he devoted himself to helping people. Wylie's character never had any luck helping people.

Even though they swiped the concept for Superman from another medium, Segiel and Shuster's own spin on the character was far more important than the source material. Costumes characters had existed for a while (the Phantom, for example, was created two years before Superman), but they created the model for superheroes to come - the idea of someone with superpowers adopting a costume and secret identity continues to today.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Superman doesn't return

Wired has an article on Superman. A good bit of it is devoted to a court battle between the widow of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and Time Warner but it also mentions that Bryan Singer couldn't come up with a treatment for his next Superman movie that the studio would accept.

The speculation is that the next Superman movie will reboot the franchise. This is a good thing. The original Superman the Motion Picture was OK for its time but parts of it were too campy, even then, and it got dated very fast.

Superman's relationship with Lois got complicated in Superman II. She discovered his identity, he gave up his powers and the consumated their relationship only for Clark to realize that the world needed Superman. He recovered his powers and removed Lois's memory of the event. It didn't seem especially creepy at the time but what he did was similar to the use of a date rape drug.

By Superman IV he was restoring her memory so that they could talk then removing it again. It was definitely starting to get creepy by then.

Singer pretended that Superman III and IV didn't exist and picked up after Superman II. His version of Superman raised the ick-factor. Lois was engaged and living with someone and had a son. It turned out that Superman didn't use protection in Superman II so Lois had his son without no memory of how he was conceived. Did she know? Did she suspect? Is that why she wrote an award-winning essay on "Who needs Superman?"

Plus, Superman was raised to demi-god status or higher. He sees and hears everything and decides who he will save and who he will ignore.

Plus he used his powers to super-stalk Lois.

Then there was the gratuitous torture of dogs (one dog ate the other, Luthor planned to eat the survivor, Clark's dog wanted to play fetch and he threw the stick over the horizon).

It is hard to see just where Singer thought he could go after all this. He should have started from scratch... like the next director will.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Deja Vu Summer

We went to see the The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor this weekend and I flashed back to several other movies.

The opening sequence has Rick's grown son Alex (Luke Ford) opening a tomb in China. Between the traps and his leather jacket, it seemed like an Indiana Jones sequence. Parts of it were also reminiscent of National Treasure 2 (although that had more water).

Then there was Jet Li playing a powerful emperor who can only be killed if he is stabbed in the heart by one weapon. The Golden Kingdom had the same set-up (including Jet Li). Both movies also had a romance between a young westerner and an oriental girl who was dedicated to killing Li's character.

One thing it didn't feel like was a Mummy movie. It doesn't matter how many times they kept calling the characters mummies, they weren't. Clay warriors just aren't mummies.

The movie was like Indiana Jones in another way - the original cast is pretty small. Four characters were returning from the last movie. One, the female lead player by Rachael Weisz, was replaced by Maria Bello. Alex who was ten in the last movie was also replaced. That only left two characters from the original movie.

I haven't decided if it was a good or bad movie yet - two days later. Some of the action scenes seemed a bit off. It had the humor of the originals but it came and went.

Possibly the problem was Brendan Fraser - or the lack of him. To a large extent he carried the first two movies. Most of the humor came from his character. Few actors can handle an action movie with a light touch the way that he can. With his character's son given an expanded part, there was less of Fraser and Ford simply doesn't have Fraser's light touch.

The movie also lacked a suitable side-kick for the villain. In the first movie we had Beni. In the second we had the Mummy's girl friend Meela. In one of my favorite exchanges in that movie, Alex asked her why he should do what she ordered when he wouldn't for his mother. She replied in a musical voice, "Because your mother wouldn't put poisonous scorpions in your bed while you were sleeping."

There just weren't any lines like that in the Mummy 3.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Monks and sharks

For the last several years, USA's show "Monk" has been one of the best on TV. Originally passed over by the networks, it has won several awards and has even appeared on NBC.

The premise of the show is that former policeman Adrian Monk is an amazing detective but he has "problems" that keep him off of the force. Monk notices everything and can solve the most impossible crime while combating his personal demons.

At least that was the original premise. The show has drifted a lot in the last few years. It used to be about watching Monk solve the case and guessing what forgotten clue would be the murderer's undoing.

The new premise is to place Monk in new situations weekly. There are still crimes but they are secondary, more often an afterthought than the driving force behind the plot.

The current season opener is an example. Monk bought the house that had been a crime scene. The explanation for this was that Monk's psychiatrist died (as did the actor who played him) so he wanted to change everything in his life. In reality, this was just an excuse to place Monk in an uncomfortable situation.

Monk noticed that a ceiling light was off-center and had a handy-man move it. While doing this, the handy-man noticed several other problems and called in a helper. The two kept finding additional problems and tearing up the new home.

Monk's phobias include dirt, dust, and messiness so having two strangers tear up his spotless house was a nightmare for him. Eventually it turned out that they were looking for money that had been hidden in the house. Monk didn't do any actual detective work in this one.

This is either because the writers got lazy or because the management at USA wanted to stress Monk's character over the crimes. Either way, the show has jumped the shark.