Star Wars

Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful

It seems that every classic is to have an entourage. The loneliness of such films as Alien, Star Wars, and King Kong is too much to bear for the hearts of movie execs, so companions are made for them. Sequels, prequels, remakes, and spinoffs are what Hollywood does most, though not necessarily best. At times, this proclivity has born sweet fruit. Though sequels are rarely as good as the original, if the original was any good at all, there have been some smashing successes. Even remakes have some achievements to be noted. I am, however, unaware of a prequel or a spinoff whose makers could hold their heads high and proud once their creation hit the silver screen. Oz the Great and Powerful, a prequel to the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, is unable to break out of this trend and be the first.

Set some years before the events of Victor Fleming’s work, it tells the tale of the wizard himself, a travelling magician from Kansas making a meager, day-to-day living. A magician is a trickster, of sorts, and Oscar Diggs (James Franco) has a character well suited to it. Though one gets the sense that at his core he is not entirely amoral, he lies to friend and stranger alike. He lusts after money and women, whom he tricks for his own benefit.

It is this very duplicity in his nature that gets him running from trouble and sets him on course for Oz. After flirting with the wife of a circus strongman, he escapes the enraged husband in a hot air balloon just as a tornado begins to ravage the landscape. As happened in the original film to Dorothy, the tornado transports him to the magical Land of Oz. There, he meets Theodora, a witch played by Mila Kunis.

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Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas, a movie based on the novel of the same name, is a bundle of stories with interconnecting threads meant to form a greater pattern, a message to the viewer. We are all in this together, we conclude by the movie’s end. Sometimes we are nice to each other, and sometimes we are not, but either way our actions resonate into the future, even as they were partly shaped by actions from the past that resonated into the present. The filmmakers are successful in creating this pattern, but as a piece of entertainment and a storytelling vehicle, the movie itself achieves only limited success.

Each story of the larger tale is engaging by itself. That is, the scenario created is interesting enough and worthy of its own movie. The scenes are shot well, and thoughtfully, and the worlds, ranging from far in the past to far in the future, are imaginative conceptions where many other stories might take place. Given this format, it is difficult to summarize the film, which is just as well because watching it becomes more of an exercise in identifying themes and spotting parallels than in following a plot.

The cutting between stories is done in such a way as to prevent momentum from accruing. While I have read many good books that switched between multiple characters to good effect, these books had the characters as part of the same story, so that an advance in the plot of one character’s story had immediate and important ramifications for the other characters, wherever they were in their story arcs. Each chapter usually had a beginning, middle, and end, as if it were its own short story, and finished with some sort of hook to make you regret leaving that character.

In Cloud Atlas, a character in one tale might compose music that another character hears decades later, but the connection is only important for the theme; it has no bearing on the obstacles to be overcome in the endeavor to reach a goal. With only a handful of exceptions, the characters in later times are not even aware of the ones who anteceded them. Imagine taking scenes from Amistad, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Miller’s Crossing, and Three Days of the Condor and mixing them together into one film. As far as the plot goes, this is almost exactly how isolated each story is from the others, how little they have to do with one another.

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Higher Cause by John Hunt

This review is part of a series covering each installment of the serialized novel Higher Cause, written by John Hunt and published by Laissez Faire Books. To catch up, start with the announcement, the book’s link-rich table of contents, and the first review.

Higher Cause by John Hunt

The eighth part of Higher Cause is out. Three chapters this time, and a real sense that the main plot is truly underway. I have some suggestions for streamlining, slicing off what does not aid the book and leaving some succulent, lean meat behind.

The first chapter takes us to more new characters, two of them. This is starting to happen with some frequency in the novel, and I am growing a little impatient with it. There is quite an investment of words given to these two men, which comes at the expense of making us wait on the storylines we are invested in. In truth, the chapter does not feel like it ought to have been a chapter all by itself. I would counsel shortening it and tacking it on to the end of another chapter, giving us just the bare essentials. Give us the important points and move the plot.

The last part saw a character introduced and developed at some length only to have him perish before the chapter ended. If these two men are going to figure large in the book, perhaps a little time spent here is OK, but if they are never going to be more than secondary characters — and after such late introductions, one wonders how primary they could possibly be — I think much of this should be edited. Whether it turns out to be worth it will depend on what happens next.

We follow them around in some detail as they perform their task, but one wonders if all these details are necessary. Again, another character’s bio sheet was told to us, rather than giving us an opportunity to get to know him by his words and actions. Did we enter the scene as late as possible and leave it as soon as we could? I do not think so, and the surplus detail exacerbates the problem.

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Wĭthûr Wē by Matthew Bruce Alexander

This month we’ve been reading and discussing Matthew Alexander’s libertarian science fiction novel Wĭthûr Wē in our book club. Over the weekend, on Sunday, we held our first Lightmonthly Read Author Chat with Matthew. The turnout wasn’t quite what we’d hoped for, but it was our first event — a successful proof of concept that we will build on. Matthew read a couple of early chapters from the new novel he’s working on, The Preferred Observer, and then we had a nice, long conversation with Mike DiBaggio and Michel Santos. Thanks, guys, for joining us.

If you missed the Google+ Hangout for whatever reason, you can watch the YouTube recording below:
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David Brin

Can I look any more smug. Can I.

David Brin
David Brin

Oops, he did it again.

David Brin, whom some think of as a libertarian science fiction author, and who styles himself as such, but who really isn’t even close to being libertarian, and who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time these days attacking real libertarians like a jilted lover, was recently interviewed on Wired.com via the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

Brin has a controversial take on Star Wars. For example, he calls Yoda one of the most evil characters ever. Well, okay, Brin does have something of a point when it comes to Yoda. The Jedi as a whole are pretty much useless, meddling busybodies who are directly or indirectly responsible for the fundamental political problems in the Star Wars universe.

But Brin’s main criticism of Star Wars and George Lucas is premised largely on his fetish for state-democracy (my term for democratic institutions and processes ossified as formal mechanisms in the state apparatus). Lucas comes under fire for always protraying the republic as corrupt and nonfunctioning, which he does because he despises democracy and favors benign dictatorship.

But, of course, Brin has staked his entire nonfiction career on his Platonic ideal of radical transparency allowing perfect knowledge in a state-democracy. Only when this ideal is realized will freedom be protected and capitalism work properly, says Brin.

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The Stygian Conspiracy by Kodai Okuda

The Stygian Conspiracy by Kodai Okuda

The Stygian Conspiracy, by first-time author Kodai Okuda, is a bulky tome and quite an undertaking. The myriad pages are brimming over with a story of action, science fiction, and even some horror elements. It is a tale on a grand scale, both in time and space. Not content with a small moment or two with a libertarian flavor, the story tackles the big issues and concepts and makes no apologies, without forgetting that the plot and characters come first.

The story transpires in a future in which the human race has spread out through the solar system and taken some tentative first steps towards exploring other star systems. The population is roughly divided between the Eastern socialists and the Western capitalists, the latter of the two having newly emerged as a power again on the world, or better yet solar, stage. That description and its implicit chauvinism make me cringe even as I write it, but Okuda does much better with the characters, creating roles that defy the simplistic expectations set up by that line drawn down the middle. There are good bad guys and bad good guys and even, I think, a little room for debate.

It is a bold concept and a wild ride. There are space battles and daring personal missions, enmities and romances, betrayals and tough decisions. It lacks nothing of the right ingredients to leave a voracious reader with a satisfied feeling upon completion. If the reader wants nothing more than an epic tale of adventure with some characters to care about, he may well come away from The Stygian Conspiracy without complaint.

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Dr. Uchronia

Dr. Uchronia

The history that didn’t happen can be just as interesting as the history that did.

This article is a small example of its own topic. Except by chance, I wouldn’t now be writing it. Not finding what I wanted while browsing in our library’s magazine aisles, I came across mention of “uchronie” in Le Nouvel Observateur. The philosopher Charles Renouvier chose this word as the title of his novel of 1857 and 1876; he coined it from Greek roots meaning “no time.” He was following the pattern set by St. Thomas More, whose Utopia derives from roots meaning “no place.” Utopia is a place that does not exist; uchronia is a time that did not exist. Uchronian works — to introduce the English adjective — are also called “what-if,” alternative, conjectural, or counterfactual history. They consider what would have happened if something else had chanced to happen.

Such works fall into two categories. The distinction is fuzzy but useful. Writings of the first kind, unlike actual history or a standard historical novel, are sheer fiction. They are not speculations about real events; they are stories that stand on their own. The Star Wars movies and Tolkien’s tales are good examples. Another is Islandia, a novel by Austin Tappan Wright, published posthumously in 1942. Wright describes events and personalities in a country on a fictional continent in the Southern Hemisphere before World War I. The people of Islandia, while highly civilized and advanced in philosophy and psychology, prefer their old ways, rejecting railroads and most other modern technology and narrowly limiting contact with the outside world. The reader (this one, anyway) drifts with the author into sympathy with the Islandian way of thinking.

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887) projects an opposite vision, one intended as backward only in an ironic sense; it imagines a prosperous and happy socialist utopia of 2000. This uchronia actually exerted some influence in its time, converting many readers to socialism because they wanted to live in the world of Bellamy’s vision.

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