FAHRENHEIT 451 (HBO Movie), 3 out of 5 Stars, 05/21/2018

Given HBO's success in producing first-rate shows, including several of the science fiction or fantasy genre, I eagerly anticipated this movie and even reread the novel. Last week, I sneaked a peek at early reviews of the film and was disappointed to see their disappointment. Here's why there's a general tepid response.

The film reimagines Bradbury's vision, in some ways to sprinkle in originality, in other ways to address modern times and technology. Beatty's expanded role was welcome and Michael Shannon's performance gave fascinating depth to the novel's late thought of Montag that Beatty wanted to die. I also rolled with Clarisse's changed role and the complete removal of the character of Mildred. The hyper-testosterone firehouse likewise wasn't a bother. At the point of the old woman's self-immolation, I was liking the movie, but soon thereafter a significant plot and technological departure from the novel never quite worked.

In describing why, I'll try to avoid spoilers. The old woman speaks a word when lighting herself. The word leads to the firemen's heavy-handed search for a technology used to encode books into DNA. Scientists today are exploring this type of technology, so the use of this in the film isn't far fetched. But exactly how the DNA code will spread isn't fully explained and lacked believability. The writers threw in something cool and hoped we didn't think about it too hard. But lovers of Bradbury's novel will think about this because that's what science fiction fans do. Still, the movie is worth watching if HBO is convenient for you and you want to see for yourself how the novel can be reimagined into today's world.

FAHRENHEIT 451  (Novel), Ray Bradbury, 4.5 out of 5 Stars, 05/19/2018

You may know why I'm reviewing the novel Fahrenheit 451 sixty-five years after its original publication. I didn't know why until two months ago, after seeing the movie Black Panther. When reading about that movie, I learned that actor Michael B. Jordan would play Guy Montag in a new HBO film version of Fahrenheit 451, this evening. So, I pulled my yellowed paperback from the bookshelf, dusted it off, and jumped in for the first time since back in high school.

Since the novel is widely considered a classic of science fiction, rightfully so, and thousands have examined its words and meanings, I'll focus my comments around leveraging the lens of today.

Any of us who have at least dabbled in novel writing learn early on that the publishing gods have deemed the first few pages, sometimes the first few sentences, as essential to the success of a book. Got to hook the reader. Ray Bradbury's first few sentences grab you with an honest preview of vivid prose to come: "It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history." Hooking, but I felt the next few dozen pages didn't maintain a taut lure and actually slackened its line. Montag's fascination with Clarisse seemed more told than developed. His swing from a proud fireman to a dubious one was abrupt and with little proof of why. Would agents and editors of today have the patience to keep reading? Or would they miss out on discovering the science fiction classic? Bradbury later shows Montag as having secreted books for a long while and his behavior as almost bipolar. This worked enough for me to overcome my earlier doubts, but the road to that was unnecessarily bumpy. Bradbury had written a shorter version of Fahrenheit 451 three years earlier as a novella called The Fireman for a magazine. Doubling the length perhaps led to the little kludginess and might not have occurred if Bradbury had initially written at novel length. Usually publishers ask writers to go the other way, cut.

The novel presents a future dystopian society of much more than banned books. Citizens ignore a background threat of war by holing up in their homes, being intravenously fed distracting fodder via the voices of the parlor walls. Pedestrians risk their lives being rundown by depraved drivers of speeding cars who might not mind not surviving the ride themselves. Where might today's society be similar? Social media, with its flash news and character limits, could be today's parlor walls, distracting us from examining issues in depth. America's seeming inurement to gun violence might be Fahrenheit 451's speeding drivers or citizens' disregard for the threat of war. While Bradbury may have guessed wrong on some technology--today's omnipresent cameras would have made Montag's flight unlikely--he's eerily close on others. Today, his novel continues to serve as a warning.

WESTWORLD (HBO), SEASON 2, EPISODE 1, 4.5 out of 5 Stars, 04/29/2018

I've been a big fan of the Nolan brothers ever since the brilliant surprise of Momento. The first season of Westworld did not disappoint, with Jonathan Nolan being joined by spouse Lisa Joy in its creation. When they chose to remake the original Westworld, the first movie venture of Michael Crichton (one of my favorite authors), I was excited, but also worried. If I like an original, remakes almost never live up. But the first season did, and probably even surpassed the original, though it's a little apples and oranges here.

So, after HBO's always cruelly long wait, the second season began last Sunday (hey, I've been really busy!). Would it live up to the first? Pleasantly, the first episode picked up right where we were left off some 16 months ago, and, boy, had the blood spilled. A loyal expanse of Crichton's vision, the newly sentient hosts were out for revenge. And, if you hadn't expected it by now, Dolores tells us that the future is theirs, to boot. But drawing from the Nolans' box of tricks (somewhat formulaic, but it's a formula that's worked), the plot jumps between two periods of time and begets just as many questions as it provides answers. That's how you set up nine more episodes.

Me thinks Michael Crichton would approve.

READY PLAYER ONE (Movie), 3.5 out of 5 Stars, 04/01/2018

Spielberg admirably captures the spirit of Cline's work, but the movie doesn't quite live up to the clever dystopian '80s escapism of the novel. Granted, it's hard to ever match a book with just two hours to work with, but Spielberg gets close, in part due to Cline's co-screenplay help.

The movie departs from the book significantly, but that wasn't too bothersome. Many key scenes of the book are reimagined well, pulling in other characters or combining plot from elsewhere in the story. The movie focuses the lessons learned from the egg hunt on Halliday's personal experiences and steps back from the book's expanded focus on the creativity of those that influenced him. Sorry, no Joust or Monty Python.

Even though the movie fell a bit short of the book, having read the book made the movie better for me. My family, who has not read the book, thought the movie good, but wasn't blown away. They viewed the movie on its own merits. I was able to appreciate how it worked to remain true to the book's spirit, even with the departures. Overall, a fun couple of hours.

READY PLAYER ONE (Novel), Ernest Cline, 4 out of 5 Stars, 03/17/2018

I'm a child of the '80s, so that's one reason why I really enjoyed this book. However, even I felt portions of the first 100 or so pages got a little bogged down in telling us how cool the Oasis is and explaining details of '80s media/video games. I found myself skimming over some of that. This is the only reason I didn't rate the book five stars.

Once the book got into gear, I loved it, and almost wanted more detail. I know, which is it, more detail or not? Cline's imagination for the future and ties back to geeky fun of the past provided the setting, but the game, both inside and outside of the Oasis, and the cleverness and ruthlessness of the game's players is what drives the book. Among several themes, I particularly appreciated one on the importance of life outside of what we often privately immerse ourselves in. The book is a generation-spanning, multi-media rush.

ARTEMIS, Andy Weir, 4 out of 5 Stars, 02/17/2018

Entertaining and imaginative with the cool space science of The Martian. Weir deftly handles a frequently frustrating protagonist, Jazz, leaving the reader shaking their head and pulling for her at the same time. Those readers of The Martian who most loved it for the near-future space setting and MacGyver-like problem solving, should enjoy Artemis. But readers who were wrapped up in Mark Watney's character might not feel the same draw to Jazz. Weir challenges the reader to understand the world of a flawed character of low standing who nevertheless relies on her intellect to navigate her way through a business power struggle she finds herself caught up in, partially due to her own poor decisions. The book is an interesting look at where corporate spacefaring may go.