Someone’s finally doing something …

December 30, 2009

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20091230/ap_on_sc/eu_russia_asteroid_encounter;_ylt=AkAKAQHg3q9AHfpp2KVDJvSs0NUE;_ylu=X3oDMTQwc2xuczY3BGFzc2V0A2FwLzIwMDkxMjMwL2V1X3J1c3NpYV9hc3Rlcm9pZF9lbmNvdW50ZXIEY2NvZGUDbW9zdHBvcHVsYXIEY3BvcwM2BHBvcwMzBHB0A2hvbWVfY29rZQRzZWMDeW5faGVhZGxpbmVfbGlzdARzbGsDcnVzc2lhbWF5c2Vu

Back in 2004, a near Earth Asteroid was discovered. This is hardly ever news, however this asteroid’s trajectory through the solar system was computed to have a 1-in-27 chance of hitting the Earth in 2029, and at its size could produce some pretty undesirable effects …. not destroying all life on Earth undesirable, but not too far off …. very cold summers, even colder winters … any tropical/sub-tropical species on the brink of extinction could easily teeter over. Even America, Europe and parts of Asia with advanced technology would be in for a rough go. The discoverers of this rock, fans of the TV series Stargate SG-1 called this potential civilization destroyer “Apophis”.

Between 2004 and 2006, the asteroid was the subject of a lot of focus as the astronomical community began getting better and more up-to-date data on the asteroid’s position and speed. Even as late as 2005, there was serious concern that the asteroid had a very good chance of passing between the Earth and the altitude of geosynchronous satellites.

Since then, the probability of impact has been severely downgraded (now it is about 1/250,000), and the chance of a second impact event in 2036 is also downgraded. But for a few years, there was a lot of concern that this could become an issue.

One of the other things that astronomers started looking at was the likely point of impact. It turns out that while exact points of impact are (of course) extraordinarily difficult, the most likely points of impact were in the Pacific Ocean (now would be a good time to sell real estate in the Los Angeles/San Francisco/Seattle area, unless you are way up in the mountains), or southern Russia.

This month, the Russians have decided that they are worried enough to start putting money into this issue. They are beginning to explore the construction of a system for knocking an asteroid off of its orbit to avoid future collisions with the Earth.

Some might think this is a ludicrous waste of money and time, however, I will be the first to say this is not …

1. There is virtually no one in the scientific community who does not believe that regular and routine impacts from extraterrestrial objects are a part of the Earth’s history. It is true that as time has gone forward, larger impacts are (gratefully) fewer and farther between, and it has been a long time since the last impact that could wipe out significant amounts of life on Earth hit. This just means: we may be due.

2. There are a wide variety of natural disasters that could cause significant damage to the Earth (volcanoes, hurricanes, gamma ray bursts) … but as far as we can tell, an asteroid impact is the only one that has the potential to wipe out all life on Earth, AND can be preventable with current technology.

Of course the public thinks it crazy to spend millions for astronomers to peer through telescopes and look for rocks hurtling through space. And undoubtedly there will be some that think Russia crazy for spending millions to blow up said rocks when there is only a 2-3% chances of impact.

While we found Apophis in plenty of time to assess it, and plan to do something about it (should it have been necessary), there is grave concern in the astronomical community that a vast majority of NEOs (Near Earth Objects, which include asteroids and comets that can cross paths with the Earth) are as yet unidentified. As a matter of fact, as one report I read noted, the most likely outcome of a planet killer hitting the Earth is that there would be little or no warning of the event. Something that should have been easily preventable, is not.

So, kudos to the Russians for stepping up and taking the first steps to save the world … should it ever come to that.


To friends near and far …

December 24, 2009

When the holidays roll around, I tend to remember years ago when I was able to get around and see all of my friends and family …. not that seeing them was such a big deal because I saw family all of the time, and saw my friends more common than that.

Now a days … I don’t see a lot of the family I used to see … I haven’t seen my cousins for years … all of the grandparents I used to see are gone too. While I do see some friends … work never allows me to see them as often as I would like … and distance prevents me from seeing others as often as I would like.

Wherever you all are …. Merry Christmas to you and your families, and a very blessed, happy, and prosperous 2010!


Film review: Avatar

December 21, 2009

Back in 1986, James Cameron, fresh off of his success with The Terminator was offered the opportunity to helm the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien. In accepting the job, he decided to take the franchise down a different path, and explore something that had been on his mind. Like many Americans of Cameron’s age, the Vietnam War had been his generation’s defining event. In Cameron’s mind, the issue had not been American politics as much as: how could the most advanced and best trained military to ever walk the Earth be defeated by a nation which for all intents and purposes had barely left the copper age? Thus in Aliens, you see a unit of highly trained marines, armed with every advanced weapon you could ask, mowed down by some very determined and scary beasts. His marines were as assured of themselves as he envisioned their American counterparts were stepping off troop transports in Vietnam. The result was about the same. The beasts were slaughtered, and the military was forced into retreat.

In Avatar, Cameron revisits this theme: a highly advanced technological military-industrial society taking on an extremely primitive tribe. But there are some twists. Cameron’s plans for this film date back to just before the disaster that was Titanic, however it sat on a shelf while he patiently waited for the technology to arrive. When he saw Peter Jackson’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, the character of Gollum convinced him that the technology was close enough to begin planning the film.

The year is 2148, and man has reached Alpha Centauri where one of the moons orbiting a gas giant is named Pandora. Pandora is a biologists dream: lush jungle and water everywhere … not to mention creatures of every type imaginable. the low gravity allows things to grow BIG. The atmosphere is not breathable by humans for but short periods of time, but they do fine with oxygen masks. The planet is also rich in an extremely valuable mineral humorously called unobtanium ($20 million per kilo!)

The problem is with the native humanoid species, the Na’vi … they are very cagey to deal with. Humans tried setting up schools and offering them technological advancement … the school was eventually shut down, and the human presence is limited to a large base of operations which can be defended.

In an attempt to solve the problem, the company in charge of raping the planet has brought in a scientist (Sigourney Weaver) who has created Na’vi-human clones (avatars) which can accept link with a human controller’s brain. The company thinks that the Na’vi will be more willing to give up and go find other trees to live in if they hear it from someone who looks like them. The scientists figure that they can better learn about the planet and its inhabitants this way.

This is all thrown into chaos when one of the scientists trained to control an avatar is killed on Earth in a robbery. The avatars are very expensive to construct, and work only when there is a genetic match between the avatar and the controller. Fortunately, the dead scientist has a twin brother (Jake), a marine who has recently been turned into a paraplegic, and is in desperate need of money to get the operation that will restore his ability to walk. He decides to replace his brother in the project, much to the chagrin of the scientists who don’t like the marines on the base, and don’t want one inhabiting their expensive observation tool.

Eventually, Jake, in the form of his avatar, makes contact with the Na’vi, and begins to learn about their society. He is also secretly reporting back to the colonel in charge of the military detachment at the base, as the colonel has promised him his legs back upon return to Earth, and secretly believes that military conflict is inevitable, and wants intelligence on his opponents.

Without giving away too much, it is only a matter of time before Jake realizes that this primitive society is extraordinarily sophisticated, and lives in great harmony with their extraordinary world, and as the time approaches for the Na’vi to be evicted so that mining may begin, he must choose serving the human race or the Na’vi. What follows are some incredible to behold battle scenes.

First off, the film is show in 3-D. I have not seen a 3-D film since I saw the IMAX film Space Station in Boston. The 3-D in this film is truly extraordinary! I have read how Roger Ebert, a strong opponent of using 3-D in films, was blown away by its use here. I agree completely … this is a whole new technology that gives, at certain parts of the film, a real three dimension effect. Since I am guessing that this will not be available with home video, this is absolutely a film that must be experienced in a theater. There are a few early scenes where the scene was set up to “show off” the 3-D, but after that, it becomes a part of the film, and you simply accept it.

Second … the creature creation of the flora and fauna of Pandora is remarkable! It is obviously imaginative, but unlike so many other attempts at creating alien life, you can tell that there was an actual attempt to model these life-forms on real biological life-forms. Thanks to the CGI, they look real …. thanks to some great research, they actually ACT real. A discussion of the biology and ecosystem of the planet would be an involved discussion, and really is something that needs to be seen. To say that any awards in visual effects is now a non-issue is an understatement. James Cameron was in no way boasting idly about this film completely altering the technology of film.

One of the questions I had going into this film is: why would James Cameron spend a huge sum of money to essentially remake Dances With Wolves (you would have to be near brain death to not see the intimate connection between that film and this one)?

My answer: Dances With Wolves is an extraordinary film, but is tied to one time period, and one conflict: the conflict of Native Americans fighting to defend their lands against a nineteenth century United States that was ignorant of what they were doing …. sure they knew they were taking land, but I am still unconvinced that they were fully cognizant of the fact that Native Americans were equally human or civilized or some such excuse. Thus people today can look at that film and say “if they knew then what we know now, that would never have happened” … that maybe a naive point of view, but it is easy to get drawn into thinking that because that conflict occurred a long time ago by people that would bear little resemblance to Americans of today.

Undoubtedly, narrow minded political pundits will say “Avatar is a metaphor for what is happening in the Middle East” or “Avatar is a metaphor for Tibet” … doing so is extremely narrow minded! Keep in mind, the Na’vi leads were voiced by Wes Studi (Native American), CCH Pounder, and Zoe Saldana (African Americans). This draws the direct parallel to American expansion in the West and European colonialization in Africa, but even that is a narrow minded approach. If that were the case, I am convinced that Cameron would have used his expansive technology and film making skills to walk the road that he did in Titanic, and made a historic film set in (fill in the blank) (colonial era Africa, the Middle East, Tibet, the Old West, Mexico, Colonial-era America, etc, etc. In setting the film in a fantastic future, he poses the more serious questions: Does this scenario look familiar? (it should) Has this happened before? (yes) Even after a good century of 20-20 hindsight, do we have to be careful to make sure this doesn’t happen again? (the answer is most definitely). Is this happening now ….. that is a more complicated question, but in seeing this film, I think it forces a more critical assessment of the world as it is, and the world as it soon will be.

Whether you think this way or not about the current situation in Iraq, it is a film that raises an obvious and troubling question. This film is very worthy to enter the pantheon of great science fiction cinema.

James Cameron has redeemed himself!


The next few months in film …

December 20, 2009

School’s out, and hopefully tomorrow I will be taking in James Cameron’s Avatar to see if he can redeem himself after the garbage that was Titanic

In any event, there are a few coming soon films that have piqued my interest …
Daybreakers (Jan. 8th)

AKA: The Victory of Dracula

… I’m not a huge fan of the vampire genre, but I don’t dislike it … the problem is for every good film (From Dusk ‘Till Dawn, 30 Days of Night), you get more crappy films (Fright Night 2, Twilight). This film’s premise is that the vampires have finally won, and humanity has been essentially reduced to cattle …. a herd of cattle that is rapidly diminishing. Thus the vampires are fighting to survive while humanity is trying to get back on top of the food chain. It sounds like a rare original take on the blood suckers.

I wonder if this is some sort of allegory regarding our diminishing petroleum reserves? Probably coincidence.

The Wolfman (Feb. 12)

AKA: The Wolfman (duh!)

This film has had its release pushed back twice, and that is rarely good news … a February release date also does not bode well (is the studio thinking it couldn’t compete with the summer blockbusters or fall awards fare?) In any event, what looks to be an atmospheric film with Benicio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins can’t be all bad … can it?

Alice in Wonderland (Mar. 5)

AKA: The definitive version of a timeless drug induced children’s classic

So Tim Burton, who has made a career of making great family films look like they were based on some drug induced trip, finally gets a crack at perhaps the ultimate prize: Lewis Carroll’s timeless masterpiece. I can imagine Disney sitting down to plan this one:

We need a director who knows creepy (Burton, check)

Is that woman who Tim Burton puts in all of his films available the really creepy looking one (Helena Bonham Carter, check)

How about Anne Hathaway … she’s not creepy, but if we dress her in white and put her in head to toe white make up, she will look very otherworldly (check).

Alan Rickman can play creepy and evil … we’ve got to get him in here (check)

How silly … if you want a creepy movie, Crispin Glover is the king of creepy (And we can send him to Letterman for the promotional tour) (check!)

How about Johnny Depp … (check)

The only thing that might make this creepier is getting Christopher Lee …. the guy who played Dracula, Sarumon, Count Dooku (check)

I’m not sure you will want your really young kids to see this …. it is bound to be a trip of some kind!

Clash of the Titans (Mar. 26)

AKA: Perseus’ List

The original Clash of the Titans was notable for being the last film for special effects legend Ray Harryhausen and acting legend Sir Laurence Olivier. Otherwise it was a very Hollywood retelling of the Greek legend of Perseus and how he goes about saving a babe from a Norwegian sea monster (the Kraken is from Norse myth … never sure how it got here … maybe a part of a trade between Zeus and Odin … the Kraken was the monster to be named later?)

This retelling looks to be a lot darker and a lot more epic thanks to CGI. Stepping in for Sir Laurence as Zeus is Liam Neeson, and stepping in as Hades is Raph Feines. Remember the human sized scorpions in the original … bigger! Kraken … more menacing … the big change in this film is that rather than Thetis being the pain in Perseus’ butt, it is Hades attempting to take over Olympus …. and the son of Zeus needs to help the old man out.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Apr. 30)

AKA: Freddy’s Reboot

Filmed partially in the nearby north suburbs, Jackie Earle Haley parlays his career reboot into putting on the razor claws of everyone’s favorite crisped custodian. I mean, didn’t they just recently wrap on Nightmare XXXIV? Michael Bay directs, and it looks like he is putting CGI to full effect to bring the nightmare sequences to greater fruition.

Iron Man 2 (May 7)

AKA: Twice the Iron, Twice the Man

In the Iron Man mythos …. the big villian is The Mandarin … who has but only been alluded to but not seen, and I suspect that will continue in this film with the baig man finally coming out in film #3 … an interesting twist on how most superhero trilogies start big and peter out as they introduce weaker villians. Anyway, everyone’s favorite gazillionaire-alcoholic-playboy-engineer must not only hold of the pressure of the U.S. government who covets his suit of armor, but antagonists from Russia (Whiplash and the Black Widow, played by Mickey Rourke and Scarlett Johansson, respectively).

Robin Hood (May 14)

AKA: My name is Gladiatorhood

Ridley Scott is a phenomenal director, and Russell Crowe has as much range as any modern actor (hard to believe that General Maximus Decimus Meridius and John Nash were played by the same actor). That alone will get my attention. Cate Blanchett gets the nod for Marian (who is played as a widow, not a maiden).

The A-Team (Jun. 11)

AKA: Untitled Liam Neeson TV project

In 2002, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, and no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire ….

Except for retconning the action for Iraq War vets instead of Vietnam vets, and inserting Liam Neeson into the role of wise cracking leader and master of disguise Hannibal Smith. I couldn’t find a trailer, but allow me to predict:

Woman in distress: Help me A-Team!

Murdoch: No problem, beautiful senorita, madamoiselle, wohoo!

Face: I’ll charter the plane.

B.A: I ain’t gettin’ on no plane, Hannibal!

insert car chase, explosions, gun battle, anti-drug message, The End

The Karate Kid (Jun. 11)

AKA: Will and Jada Pinkett Smith present their son, Jaden, as the Karate Kid

Thought The A-Team was the only vintaged 80’s title coming back in the middle of June? This film does offer a few twists in that it is about a kid who actually has to go to China when mom gets moved there by his job, and learns the title martial art from a grand master. Who dares step into the shoes of beloved Pat Morita’s Miyagi-san … Jackie Chan was a pretty good hire! If there is justice, there will be a “sweep the leg” or “pt him in a body bag” line somewhere in there, along with “You’re the best” playing in the background.