Pacific Rim is a work of art

Over the weekend I went with some fellow graduate students to see Pacific Rim. It’s not a particularly complicated movie, there are some gaping plot holes, the technobabble reaches facepalm levels and it fails the Bechdel Test. All that being said, Pacific rim was one of the most enjoyable science fiction movies I’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s much better than the current crop of superhero flicks (with possible exception of The Avengers and the Batman movies) and the last movie I liked this much was probably District Nine.

So why do I like this movie so much? It’s hard to put my finger on it, exactly. The concept is simple, but interesting: giant monsters rise out of the depths of the Pacific Ocean and humanity assembles giant robots piloted via a neural link. Crucially, these machines must be piloted by two pilots at time, leading to interesting character interactions who share the neural link. Over time, humanity grows complacent, the robot program gets scrapped and the defenses are left to rot until finally the apocalypse is nigh and only a handful of fighters stand between us and oblivion. Not the most novel premise in existence, but the magic is in the details.

The characters are at once both larger than life and fatally flawed. The imagery is classic Guillermo del Toro: beautifully detailed while being rough and gritty resulting in something that is clearly imaginary while being strangely believable. The giant robots have been neglected for years: they’re banged up, dented, rusty, constantly being repaired (think more Matrix Revolutions and less Oblivion). The last line of defense is a small, cramped base in Hong Kong. Everyone lives in cramped, mostly dirty conditions. This is not humanity’s finest hour. And with that as the background, humanity’s last line of defense is provocatively international: American, Russian, German, Australian, Chinese, Japanese and more. At the end of the day, scientists and engineers prove to be just as important as the gunslingers and military commanders. A smuggler and gangster helps put in place a core piece of the puzzle. Families are broken, important characters fall and fathers live to see their sons die. Accept the premise and forgive the technological stumblings and the movie is oddly human in comparison to your standard sci-fi flick.

And then there are the fight scenes. They are, to say the least, interesting. Though we see giant robots battling sea monsters, the battles are more martial arts than technological warfare. It’s as much about the pilots in the machines as it as about the machines themselves. Through it all, the anime influence is clear. The robots, termed Jaegers, are equipped with plasma cannons and missiles as well as swords and spinning blades. The camera angles are often imperfect and the lens is often wet or scratched. Crazy? Yes. Fun to watch? Absolutely.

In many ways,  Pacific Rim stands out because of what it is not. It’s not your run-of-the-mill action hero story, the characters and actors aren’t well known and hence open to both interpretation and evolution. You know there’s going to be an epic battle at the end, but there’s enough unknown in between to keep you from getting bored. It bears more in common with an old western than a modern superhero or scifi movie. It’s a reminder that people are still capable of coming up with an original screenplay that’s good and worth watching.

Should you go watch it? Absolutely. If you’re a scifi buff, keep in mind that it take the word “science” very liberally and definitely doesn’t take itself very seriously. If you’re not, then don’t worry, the science isn’t really a key part of the movie. The characters, their histories and interactions carry as much as the action sequences. Pacific Rim definitely takes it to my list of science fiction that I’ll recommend to people looking for something new.

(PS. If you’re interested in getting some insight in what went into the movie, this interview with Guillermo del Toro is definitely worth reading).

To thine own reading habits be true

It’s been about two weeks since the untimely demise of our dearly beloved Google Reader. Since then many replacements have been stepping up to the plate. I’ve been using Feedly, but I hear good things about Digg Reader too. A few days after that Anil Dash wrote a post entitled “The Golden Age of RSS” where, among other things, he provides a very long list of RSS readers across various platforms. He also makes four suggestions about improving the state of the RSS ecosystem and two of those four are about the actual reading experience. While I have immense respect for Mr. Dash (and Dave Winer), I’m not excited by either of his suggestions.

First off, Mr. Dash seems to not be a big fan of the mailbox style of displaying feeds (a la Google Reader) or the magazine style (a la Pinterest and Feedly). He seems to rather favor Winer’s river of news style. Secondly, he says that he wants a blog reader — essentially a single site RSS reader that kicks in when you visit the site and gives you a content-focused, style-independent view of the site. While both of these suggestions seem interesting (and I hope someone picks them up and does cool things with them) neither of them is particularly appealing to me.

Personally, I like the mailbox-style of reading feeds. I like to be able to look through a list of titles, read the ones that sound interesting, and get rid of the rest (currently by mass marking them as “read” — not the best interface, but it gets the job done). I don’t want a river of news — I want a digest of interesting things that I can read at my own leisure, irrespective of when the author posted them. My RSS reading list isn’t a source of news, it’s a selection of authors who write interesting pieces and whose posts I don’t want to miss. Now, an argument could be made that if some post is really good, it will filter through my Twitter or Facebook circles and I’ll hear about it. But I have neither the time nor the energy to sift through those streams to find interesting things my friends are posting. I’d rather just have the good stuff come directly to a single known location. And this brings me to Mr. Dash’s second recommendation (and why I disagree with it). I don’t see much personal value in the sort of site-specific reader he wants. The whole point of having RSS for me is that I don’t have to visit the website. See above arguments for a central location for posts from approved sources.

Does this mean that river-of-news or site specific RSS readers are a bad idea? No, of course not. Anil Dash and Dave Winer are both very intelligent people with proven track records and if they’re advocating something it’s worth looking into. All I’m saying is that they’re not the best idea for me. Reading habits are a very personal thing. We like to read different sorts of things and we like to read them in different ways. Dave Winer likes to be plugged into a river of news, I prefer to have a stack of articles waiting for me at the end of the day.

I truly believe that the web is a democratic medium — it allows us to define both how we publish and consume content (within limits). While we’ve explored the publishing aspect in lots of different ways (sites, blogs, tumblelogs, podcasts, microblogs, photoblogs, vlogs), the consumption side has perhaps seen a little less action. The death of Google Reader seems to have sparked a new burst of RSS-related innovation. Once we’re done picking our favorite clone, moving our lists and syncing our devices, maybe we can think about how to make the consumption experience as democratic as the publishing experience.

Celebrate Independence with Books

Happy Independence Day to all my American readers! While you’re enjoying your fireworks and barbeque and beer (and possibly sweltering hot weather) why not pick up some great books to go with it all? The fine folks over at Humble Bundle announced their second Humble eBook Bundle featuring 6 books from authors such as Wil Wheaton and Cory Doctorow. As of this writing there are just about 12 hours left and 25,000 bundles have already sold. You can name your price for 4 of the books and if you pay more than the average (currently under $10) you get the other two. 6 great books for $10 sounds like a great deal to me (especially when the books separately would cost about $70).



All the ebooks are available in multiple DRM-free formats so you can read them on your Kindle, iPad or any other reading device of your choice. Proceeds are divided between the authors, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Children’s Play Charity and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. So grab a good book and tell your friends all about it.