5 Important Themes in Science Fiction Cinema, or Cultivating Bad Taste

Posted in culture, humor on February 21st, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

Yesterday I attended the 48th episode of Boskone, a science fiction literature convention held in Boston.  I found that Boskone was not just about books however, illuminating me with discussion panels such as “The Five Definitive Criteria By Which SF Cinema Is to Be Judged.”

Robot Monster

Warning: This blog post is about to get silly.

The panel consisted of Esther Friesner, Craig Shaw Gardner (lord of obscure SF movies), Ginjer Buchanan, and Bruce Coville.

"Five Definitive Criteria..." panel @ Boskone 48

They considered science fiction writer John C. Wright’s criteria:

1. Is there a hot babe in a skintight and/or revealing future-suit?



2. Is there a gorilla?

Bride of the Gorilla

Bride of the Gorilla

3. Is there a robot?

The Gunslinger from Westworld

The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) from Westworld

4. Does any character have Way Cool mind powers?

Big Trouble in Little China

Big Trouble in Little China

5. Does a planet get blown up?

exploding planet

This shit just got real.

The gorilla requirement forced the large part of the discussion into the realm of cheap B movies such as Rock ‘N’ Roll Wrestling Women Vs. the Aztec Ape. In fact, the only two non-B movies featuring gorillas I can think of off the top of my head are Congo and Mighty Joe Young.

Of course, if you stretch the definition of gorilla to include other kinds of apes, you can start considering the Planet of the Apes movies and 2001: A Space Odyssey. But even those don’t meet all the criteria. Many movies get 4/5, for instance Star Trek (2009) and Forbidden Planet.

Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet

The most obvious movie that can meet all five criteria is Star Wars: Episode IV, if “gorillas” is stretched to include Wookies.

I pointed out to the panel that if we include TV series, then Aqua Teen Hunger Force has definitely met all five criteria. I didn’t mention the ATHF movie, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, because I don’t think it featured any planets being blown up or a gorilla.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters

Hopefully they will rectify that in the ATHF sequel Death Fighter, planned for release in summer 2012. And in case you were wondering, rumors have it that Bruce Campbell will return to voice Chicken Bittle. Thus, once again I have an excuse to end a blog post with that grand sci-fi thespian.

Bruce Campbells

Bruce Campbells

Tags: , ,

When Mainstream Attacks: Robot Tropes That Never Die

Posted in culture, humor, transhumanism on February 17th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

Science comedian Brian Malow has made a video containing neither comedy nor science:

When Robots Attack! Should We Fear a Singularity?

And yes, I realize I shouldn’t have even bothered to watch it once I realized it was for a mainstream news outlet, but several people in my Twitter lists were tweeting it.

Unfortunately, this video turned out not to be for nerds or anyone who has ever thought about future robots or the Singularity.  This video is for mainstream sheep.  The only glimmer of hope was when he started pursuing the thread of asking why humans have this tendency to punish themselves in robot stories with a father figure or in the manner of Frankenstein.  After a couple seconds of that we’re dropped back into cliché city with “robot uprisings.”

The Roomba is mentioned—and then—holy shit, iRobot makes military robots too!  OMG!  Wait…everybody knows that already.  Big deal.  I guess Time readers/watchers are really behind the…times.  And sure, I’m not being fair—Time readers may not have heard of every robot company, after all.  Thank goodness this video shows Big Dog and Robonaut, two unrelated robots made by other companies, wedged in between the iRobot clips while Malow lobs the old joke at us that the cleaning robots will decide to kill humans.

Sure, it’s supposed to be funny.  But it’s not, because it’s unoriginal and out of date and/or not real enough (some humor is effective because it’s so close to the truth).  As William Zinsser said of humor writers:

They’re not just fooling around.  They are as serious in purpose as Hemingway or Faulkner—in fact, a national asset in forcing the country to see itself clearly.

Occasionally I do see a humor piece on the web that achieves this, sometimes even from big places like Cracked.com or The Onion.

Partly, it’s just a matter of taste.  Surely some people found Malow’s robot/singularity video funny; after all, millions of people out there paid money to see Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers.  Millions of people…laughing when they’re told to at tired jokes and clichés.

Of course, maybe it’s too difficult to be funny with robots—you have to be creative and you’re not sure what your target audience will grok.  But, please, if you’re going to make yet another joke about the “robot uprising,” at least make it a new joke.

If you think I’m biased against people making fun of robots or my company, think again: The Daily Show beat Malow to the punch and made fun of iRobot in 2009 (“Roombas of Doom“), and it was much funnier than Malow’s attempt, although still very far removed from reality:

So why do I even bother ranting about mainstream tropes and lack of creativity?  Well, the problem is it’s infecting even those not in the mainstream.  Almost every person, even if they are scientists or engineers, seems to be obligated to mention AI overlords and robot uprisings as if there are no possible other hooks available.  Every single military robot related article I have seen on the Internet mentions Terminator.  It’s as if the bulk of our culture has been reduced to a mere handful of common concepts, and more and more people are being sucked into this pit of mental inbreeding.

Cross-posted with Science 2.0.

Tags: , , , ,

Tron:Legacy and Isomorphisms

Posted in artificial intelligence, culture, philosophy on December 21st, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

One of reasons I like Tron:Legacy is the existence of ISOs.  ISOs are “isomorphic algorithms”, which are lifeforms that emerged–unplanned–from the artificial environment of the grid.  Besides being a cool movie manifestation of ALife and emergent phenomena, there is also an association with certain philosophical and AI ideas via the word “isomorphic.”  The introduction to ISOs may have sounded like a brief moment of technobabble to some, whereas to me it was a brilliant reference to Gödel, Escher, Bach.

In this famous (in some circles) 1979 book by Douglas Hofstadter , the author suggests that since isomorphisms produce meaning in simple formal systems (they act as the link between symbols and real world objects) they might be behind all meaning in humans.

Hofstadter says (p. 82):

In my opinion, in fact, the key element in answering the question “What is consciousness?” will be the unraveling of the nature of the “isomorphism” which underlies meaning.

The other awesome element of Tron:Legacy is the digital DNA.  This can be repaired by manipulating the holographic interface of an entity’s identity disk.  In the movie this was demonstrated when Flynn fixed the digital DNA which then somehow resulted in the regeneration of Quorra’s missing arm.  Although this is Hollywood’s presentation of hacking incredibly complex system of codes (note that unlike most movies, Tron:Legacy shows actual UNIX commands being entered in the real world 2010 scenes, saving the fake interfaces for the Grid), it makes one wonder–what if repairing DNA and/or physical body parts really was that easy?

The concept of the ISO’s digital DNA is also a provocative idea aside from the ID disk interface.  Is this DNA better than biological DNA?  Are ISOs truly better than humans?  Or are they simply the Grid isomorphism of “real” world humans?  Flynn talks about all the improvements he can make in the world from Grid projects.  However, Flynn tells his program CLU (which is a partial copy of himself) that there’s no such thing as perfection.  So we are left in the middle ground, and anybody who thought this movie was a simple black and white good vs. evil epic Hollywood effects regurgitation has missed the important grey areas.

Quorra, an ISO

Cross-posted with Science 2.0.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Inception Infoporn

Posted in culture, humor on September 14th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

Christopher Nolan’s Inception has spawned some interesting things on the intertubes.

Behold this infographic by Rick Slusher showing the paths of the characters through the nested dreams (and who hosted each dream):

Inception narrative infographic

Surely that would make Tufte proud and warrants as much attention as Charles Joseph Minard’s famous graphic showing the time-place losses of Napoleon’s army during the Russian campaign of 1812…

…and more than matches xkcd’s movie chart excellence:

Lord of the Rings narrative chart

As a curious comparison, here is director Christopher Nolan’s own diagram:

Christopher Nolan's Inception narrative diagram with dream levels

Here is another Inception graphic–it shows the same info in a different way, although it doesn’t get across the time duration increases as the first graphic does.  It also states that Fischer hosted Limbo which disagrees (I think) with Nolan’s diagram.

Inception narrative flowchart

And now, just for fun:

Inception comic-style joke about the plot

Image Credits:

  1. Rick Slusher via Co.Design
  2. Minard via Edward Tufte
  3. Randall Munroe (xkcd)
  4. Inception: The Shooting Script via io9
  5. Sean Mort
  6. fredvanlente via jasonpollock.tv

Tags: , ,