The online journal of Vermont filmmaker, Bill Simmon.

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Alien: Cubed

Okay, so because Casey Rae just won’t let sleeping dogs lie, I went ahead and re-watched Alien³. You see, waaaaaay back in 2009 Casey left a comment on my blog that said he thought that Aliens was “way weaker than Alien³.” I could not see how an otherwise intelligent and articulate hominid like Casey could possibly hold such an obviously outlandish opinion and made a mental note to revisit the film as soon as I had nothing better to do.

Five years passed in which I apparently always had something better to do.

Then yesterday on Facebook, presumably stirred to action by the untimely death of H.R. Giger, Casey poked the old wound.

Now I had not seen Alien³ since I watched it in the theater in 1992 with my friend Alex Woolfson. That night he and I agreed that the third installment of our beloved corporate-military SF franchise should just be chalked up to a hypersleep nightmare — a non-canonical sepia-drenched misstep to be immediately dismissed. The only question that remained for Alex and me was: which was a superior film, Ridley Scott’s horror-SF masterpiece, Alien, or James Cameron’s one-up-the-bad-assery sequel, Aliens? (Both sides of this unanswerable question have merit and it’s a worthy debate for another time.) But ? Please. Do not bore us with your moody little brown stain of a film.

In the intervening years a new cut of was released that reportedly restored at least part of David Fincher’s original intent for the film (though Fincher himself was not involved with the new cut in any way). That’s what I watched tonight. The “Assembly Cut,” as its called.

Aaaaaaand okay. It’s not as bad as I remembered. In fact, it’s not really even a bad film. It has merit. It’s moody, not terrible to look at from a production design perspective (the oppressively brown palette and dated alien effects notwithstanding), it takes itself seriously and the acting is mostly pretty good. I’ll add that it has a clear main character with fairly clear stakes, a ticking clock that ups the stakes nicely and a few surprises/twists/reveals along the way that make it more interesting. There’s even a (darkly sardonic) laugh or two.

The new cut improves on the theatrical version in at least one very important way: the eye-rolling laugh-at-it-not-with-it moment in the theatrical version where the queen chestburster erupts from Ripley’s chest as she descends into the molten furnace and Ripley cradles it lovingly as they fall into the fire together — yeah, that shit’s gone. Ripley just falls into the fire and dies. Much better.

But just because isn’t a complete train wreck of a film is no reason to go around making crazy claims like it’s somehow superior to a classic like Aliens. I know that opinions about art are subjective and Casey is entitled to his, however misguided they are. Nevertheless I shall attempt to explain the reasons why I think fails to live up to the standards set by the previous two films in the franchise.

First though, why is Aliens considered such a classic? What makes it so great that it’s arguably better than Ridley Scott’s original (note: I happen to prefer the original film for reasons I won’t go into here, but many people consider Aliens an example of a sequel that outshines the film it follows, like The Empire Strikes Back and Godfather Part II)?

Aliens succeeds on a number of important levels that very few sci-fi action films manage to pull off. It gets all the basics down perfectly: a main character we care about (Ripley), clear goals and a sense of what’s at stake if she fails to achieve her goals (lots of people die, The Company wins), A very clear antagonist (aliens), great obstacles to her goals (dumb military jarheads, Burke, no ride home, etc.) a really clear and empathetic character arc involving confronting her fears (PTSD from the first film) and finding something to care about and keep her connected to the world (Newt and to a lesser extent, Hicks). It’s got fantastic reveals (the alien nest, Burke’s duplicity, the aliens using the duct-work, the queen, Bishop isn’t evil, the queen’s appearance on the Sulaco, etc.).

It also totally delivers on the pacing and action level. Cameron is a master of this kind of filmmaking and Aliens is arguably his best film. The characters in the ensemble all seem three-dimensional and real — even the throwaway characters that die early. There’s a reason the dialogue in Aliens is so quotable — because it’s so great. The screenplay and actors and director were the right mix and they struck gold.

And importantly, it’s a smart film. I don’t mean on a subtext level, though there is subtext to be had here (not as chewy as the first film, to be sure, but it’s there). I mean the characters are smart and they react in realistic ways to their situations. The plot is very rarely moved forward due to stupid or incompetent behavior. The drama all feels real. And the set-up/pay-off of the loader exoskeleton suit is iconic for a reason — it’s fucking awesome.

And in context with the previous film, Aliens feels fresh and exhilarating and a worthy sequel. You thought one scary monster on a ship was bad? Well now there are HUNDREDS of them and even these bad ass marines can’t stop them. And remember how hard and tough Ripley was in the first one? Well that experience BROKE her. She’s a frightened, badly damaged woman who has lost everything and everyone she ever knew (including, importantly, her daughter) and is suffering from PTSD.

Aliens is very nearly a perfect action movie. It does everything right in a tight, concise way, and totally, satisfyingly, delivers the goods.

Now let’s talk about . I already mentioned the things I like about it. Let’s look at what’s not so great.

First, we can’t begin a discussion about without addressing its original sin — the title sequence murder of Newt and Hicks. Fincher famously never talks about his involvement with but my friend Ian Albinson interviewed him for Art of the Title and before the interview, Ian asked me if I had any questions for the director. I had one. Fincher replied:

The writers weren’t bringing [Newt and Hicks] back. They had a script that didn’t include them, so we had to tell the story of their disappearance. … The script had the Sulaco pod being ejected, but we decided afterwards that we needed to see what happened on the ship that led to that event.

So we can’t blame Fincher for this sin. In fact, we should thank him for at least showing us how they died. But let’s just acknowledge that exists in a context with the other films. Part of what made Aliens so great was taking what Ripley had been through in the previous film and building realistically on it. strips away all of the progress we’d made with Ripley’s character in the previous film before the opening credits are done. At best, that’s lazy storytelling. It’s a reset button that’s merely convenient for the writers’ short term goals and doesn’t respect the work that’s been done before. In that opening title sequence, utterly lost the franchise’s core fan base — before a single line of dialogue was uttered.

But let’s not stop there! As long as we’re talking about continuity with the previous film, here’s a question: how did the alien queen get not one, but two eggs on board the Sulaco? The title sequence of shows an open egg and a facehugger. That facehugger somehow impregnates Ripley with a queen and another one impregnates an ox on Fury 161 (it was a dog in the theatrical version). I’ve seen Aliens about a hundred times. How did that supposedly happen? The queen would have had to have brought the eggs with her up the elevator, onto the drop ship and then deposited them somewhere in the Sulaco’s hangar before being sucked out into space. We saw her egg-laying capacity get blown up by Ripley, so she couldn’t have laid the eggs. And once the eggs were deposited, unnoticed, in the hangar bay of the Sulaco, how did the facehuggers manage to get into the place where the hypersleep pods were? Can they open doors like velociraptors? I’m just saying, there are troubling questions before the movie even starts.

Okay, so maybe we should just discount the previous movies when judging this one. Maybe its unfair to judge based on what did or didn’t happen in other films. This is its own beast, after all. So we just accept the deaths of Newt and Hicks and the fact that there are two facehuggers in with the sleep pods. Fine. We’re still in trouble from a basic plausibility standpoint. I’m going to bullet-list this in chronological order:

  • Doofus ex machina: a prisoner discovers a dead facehugger when they haul in the dead ox and says nothing about it. The film doesn’t even bother to address it again.
  • False drama: Ripley sleeps with Clemens… why? Dunno. She just does. I remembered this happening but had forgotten how totally out of the blue and un-set-up it was.
  • Doofus ex machina: Dude in the tunnel discovers some molted alien skin and hears a suspicious noise, so naturally sticks his head in a hole to investigate and gets chomped. This is a standard horror trope and Scott’s Alien is guilty of it too, but still.
  • False drama: After Clemens examines the site of the dead prisoner he tells Ripley that he saw an acid burn mark like the one she’d noticed in the escape pod, and Ripley simply refuses to tell him what her fear is. Why? There is no logical explanation for her to keep her suspicions a secret at that point, but she does it anyway because drama.
  • Doofus ex machina: This was new in the Assembly Cut and it’s really bad. They successfully trap the xenomorph in a vault. Then they let Golick — the lunatic they had suspected of killing some prisoners — out of his straight jacket because they now know it was the xenomorph that did it. Golick then, for no apparent or explained reason, clocks another prisoner over the head, goes to the vault where the alien is trapped, slits the throat of another prisoner and opens the door to let the alien out (and be killed by it in the process), because… crazy. That is the worst kind of lazy writing. Here’s a screenwriting tip. If you’re ever writing a scene in a film and a major plot development happens because: crazy, stop and do it over. You’re doing it wrong.
  • Doofus ex machina: So the xenomorph has escaped and now everyone is terrified. The extraction team is still 10 hours away and they will be picked off one by one. They argue about what to do and where to go. Dillon suggests they huddle in the assembly hall where there is no air conditioning for the alien to hide in. “If it’s coming in here it will have to come through one of those doors,” he says. Part of this discussion happens literally in front of the vault that the alien has just been set free of. You know, the one with the three-inch steel reinforced doors that they told us about when they were hatching their let’s-trap-the-alien plan. No one bothers to suggest just hiding in that vault for 10 hours until rescue comes.
  • She said it so it’s true: Ripley does a CAT scan of herself in the escape pod and discovers she’s got a little alien insider her. And she says its a queen. So, how, exactly, does Ripley know it’s a queen? Nobody asks and she never says. Ripley has seen one adult queen and a bunch of adult xenomorphs and one freshly born chestburster, but she’s never seen an alien “fetus” before that moment. Did it have “queen” tattooed on it somewhere? I saw the same scan image she did and I have no idea how she knew it was a queen.

And just to be fair, here are a couple of moments I liked:

  • After Clemens is killed and Ripley interrupts Administrator Andrews in the cafeteria yelling about the alien, and Andrews shouts her down and orders her taken back to the infirmary, Andrews is suddenly ripped from his place by the alien in the duct works. After he’s taken, everyone in the room is frozen in place, looking at the spot the administrator had just been as Andrews’ blood drips from the ducts. One of the prisoners yells “Fuck!” It was a funny moment.
  • The set-up and pay-off of the way the xenomorph is killed is good. After the fire, the sprinklers come on and we see a fire-ravaged metal bucket pop from the extreme temperature change of hot to cold. It’s a nice foreshadow of the molten-lead-followed-by-cold-water death of the alien.
  • The lone survivor of Fury 161, shot in the leg and in chains, is marched out of the colony by the extraction team. His crazy defiance is a nice touch.

So yeah. Is a horrible film? No. It’s fine. It’s moody and well acted. It’s a bit long in its third act and you can’t really think about the story for too long before running into the problems I listed above, and the alien effects were kind of bad. It’s a fine film, but there are reasons Aliens is considered a sic-fi classic and Alien³ is not.



Tinfoil Party Hats for Everyone!

Although I basically never touch this blog anymore, I have to come out of hibernation for a moment and mention that tonight, April 15, 2014, is the tenth anniversary of my very first Candleblog post.

The tenth anniversary is the tin anniversary, so everyone please put on your tinfoil party hats and raise a glass to the once and future Candleblog.

That is all.


Kosmoplastique is GO!


Hi. I’m a zombie. I just spent 24 hours (well, 26 really) in a digital storytelling competition called #StoryhackVT. I was part of a five-person team called #Kosmoplastique (and yes, I enjoy #usinghashtagsoutsideoftwitter). The deal is this: Saturday at 10AM eastern a “theme” was announced. All of the competing teams then had 24 hours to create an entirely original narrative and publish it across at least three different digital media. This morning at 10, we all presented our stories in-brief to a crowd gathered at ArtsRiot in the south end of Burlington. Now voting begins and will continue until midnight tonight (10/20/13). The team that gets the most votes wins a cash prize. There are second and third place prizes too.

Kosmoplastique’s story is called On Guard for Thee and the whole kit and caboodle in all media forms can be found right here. Check it out. Enjoy it. Explore. If you take in everything you can possibly take in, the experience will take you about 10 or 15 minutes (if you skip around, it will take considerably less time). Either way, once you’ve looked at our story, please take a moment to go here and VOTE for us (email address required)!!!

In case you’re curious about our team of geniuses, our fearless leader was Erik Esckilsen, writer, educator and all around story guy. We were joined by Joe Manley (Flash and web coding), Andy Burkhardt (social media guy and surprise actor), Allan Nichols (filmmaker, actor, singer/songwriter, man about town), and yours truly — I was mostly responsible for shooting & editing the video elements.

The story was a true collaboration between all five of us, based on the following theme: “And none of this would have happened if you hadn’t arrived 5 minutes earlier.” Media we utilized in telling the story included:

Digital video
Blog posts
Digital publication of an original song
Online personal ads
Flickr posts
Flash media

Now is the time when we sleep. Please vote!


Feeling nostalgic

I’m having one of those moments when I can’t stop thinking about a certain period of my life. I just watched the pilot episode of The Americans on FX, about a pair of undercover KGB agents living in Washington DC in the early 80s. The needle-drops included Fleetwood Mac, Phil Collins and Pat Benetar and the nostalgia sleeper cells in my brain were activated. Here’s the deal…

I moved from Canandaigua, NY to Ithaca, NY in late 1981 or early 1982 — during the winter break of my 7th grade year. I attended Boynton Middle School and lived with my mom at 211 Willow Avenue (top floor of a duplex). I lived in Ithaca for all of 1982 and the first half of 1983, and was there for the second half of 7th grade and all of 8th grade. I made several really great friends in Ithaca and I am not in touch with any of them anymore and that makes me sad. I’ve tried Googling and searching facebook for these long lost chums, but either they don’t have obvious web/social media presences, or their names are too common to be of much use in searches. So I’m going to go ahead and name names in the hope that somebody will see this post and shoot me an email. Adding the names will also provide context for those friends who see this but aren’t sure I’m *that* Bill Simmon. Here are the names of my closest 7th and 8th grade friends in alphabetical order…

Kim Graves
Timo Huttunen
Chris Oliver
Andy Skibinski
Chris Smith (Christian Andrew Smith, if we want to be specific)

Timo is the only one I’ve seen as an adult. I looked him up successfully one Christmas when I was in his neck of the woods visiting some family near Ithaca, but that was a good 20 years ago now and we lost touch. I cold dialed Chris once after calling “information” (does that still exist as a thing?) in Kansas City, where he’d moved the same summer I moved away from Ithaca. But again, that was 20 years ago and the Internet hasn’t been much help locating “Chris Smith” in Kansas City (if he’s even still there).

Kim was a girl I liked and pseudo-dated. She went to Dryden high school (the town up the road a bit). She was a year older. We roller skated together. Don’t Stop Believin’.

Those years and those friends mattered. I got into comics in Ithaca. I saw Star Trek II and The Empire Strikes Back there. I played arcade video games, watched way too much HBO, roller skated, and played my first D&D games there. It was formative, is all I’m saying. So Kim, Timo, Chris, Andy, Chris… if you see this, please shoot me an email at billsimmon at gmail dot com. It would be lovely to hear from you and catch up.

And now you find yourself in ’82
The disco hotspots hold no charm for you…


I Will Love The Newsroom In Spite of Itself

I’ve been waiting for Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO show, The Newsroom, for more than a year. When I learned that the show-runner for Sports Night, The West Wing, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip had a show coming to the network where all the great shows live, and that this show would be a behind-the-scenes-of-a-TV-show TV show (like Sports Night and Studio 60) and that it would focus on politics (like The West Wing), I was sure it was going to be great.

Then the early reviews started coming in. If you haven’t read them, here’s a sample:

Based on these pieces (and several others) I adjusted my expectations and braced myself for what I read would be a pompous, pedantic, semi misogynistic love letter to a time when TV journalists were REAL TV journalists when America was truly great — a time I don’t think ever really existed. I also started questioning my love of Sorkin and the TV he has created up ’til now (he also wrote some pretty great films, BTW, including The Social Network — he won an Oscar for that — Moneyball, The American President, and A few Good Men). Maybe Sorkin has always been really bad and I was just a naive fool to love those other shows.

Then I watched the premiere of The Newsroom (the first episode can be seen in its entirety here), and I remembered: I love Aaron Sorkin despite all these flaws.

I’ve loved every one of Sorkin’s shows — even the much maligned Studio 60. Yes, he’s an asshole. Yes, he’s pompous. Yes, he longs for an America that probably never actually existed and even if it did, probably isn’t really worth longing for. Yes, he’s guilty of all of his characters sounding the same. Yes, he has an unhealthy and unrealistic indignation toward the internet, And yes, his issues with gender roles are occasionally troubling (though he frankly does a million times better in this regard than the majority of TV writers, he just gets extra heat over this because we expect so much more from him, IMO). Despite these flaws, I can listen to Sorkin characters banter all the live long day and not get tired of it.

Here’s what Linda Holmes wrote in her review for NPR:

Aaron Sorkin remains my favorite writer of dialogue in American television and film. His workplace-banter scenes are like perfect little songs; there are times when I think he is as good at playing with words and rhythm as Cole Porter. Stretching back to A Few Good Men and the way it teased out a playfulness in Tom Cruise that I had never seen, I have believed he has an almost unmatched ability to build sentences and scenes that hit you like the Rube Goldberg machines in OK Go videos: You look at them in wonder and almost want to clap your hands when they’re over, simply because they have been executed with such love, energy and style.

I like that Holmes went with a music analogy. This is why I love Sorkin, and even the “Sorkinisms” featured in this YouTube edit that’s making the rounds. Those Sorkinisms are favorite riffs, like any good musician will have. Stretching this analogy further, Sorkin is like an amazingly good, but cheesy and obvious guitar player, whose solos occasionally sound the same but are still incredible to behold.

So yeah, Sorkin isn’t perfect and The Newsroom will be pompous and pedantic and all the other things the critics say, and I’m still going to love every overwrought, self-righteously indignant second of it.



Ten Tips for Creating Decent Web Video

I’ve been asked to speak next week about using video in a social media context as part of BTV Social Media Day. In preparation for that event, I’ve dusted off an old “6 tips” document I’ve used in the past and added some tips bringing the total up to ten. The audience will be mostly business-types looking for advice about improving their use of video online in a social media context, generally.

I’d love some feedback from folks. I’ll obviously elaborate greatly on each of these points as I talk, but this will be my jumping off point. Here’s what I’m looking for:

Video pros: do you disagree with anything? What would you add/change?

Video n00bs: does this make sense? Do these sound like steps you could follow?

1. What is it you want to say?
Be clear about your goals with your video. If you can’t articulate them in words,
you won’t be successful doing it in video either.

2. Who is your intended audience?
Target your video’s distribution accordingly. Some videos are better for web distribution than others. Strategize how you will get eyeballs on the video. When you launch it and how ( and to whom) you spread the word are important decisions.

3. All media is “storytelling.”
Many basic dramatic concepts can apply to your video. Who is your main character? What are the stakes that she/he faces? What questions are raised that the video answers for the audience?

4. Show, don’t tell. Video is a visual medium.
If your video is five minutes of your executive director talking to the camera, you’re probably not making the best use of the medium. Think of other visual elements that can help illustrate what you’re trying to say. Note that these assets may already be in-hand — other video clips, photos, power point slides, news clippings, interviews, etc.

5. Don’t zoom.
Your camera has a zoom lens? Great. Use it to pick different frames and then shoot. Don’t zoom in and out while you’re recording. It can make your audience sea-sick and it will look like a bad home movie. Zooming around looks like you’re always hunting for a shot. Be confident in your shooting. Find a frame and commit to it.

6. Take advantage of available light.
Don’t shoot people in front of windows or with the sun behind them. Use light sources to their maximum advantage. Strategize the best shooting angle for both light and composition.

7. The secret to good video is good audio.
Despite the visual tips above, audiences will actually forgive a blurry, boring image a lot faster than they will tolerate bad audio. Make sure your audio is clean and understandable. Using an external microphone that’s as close to the subject’s mouth as possible is a good idea, and ALWAYS use headphones.

8. Owning a DSLR doesn’t automatically make your videos great.
Having good gear can enhance the quality of your production, but don’t expect the expensive equipment to make up for not thinking your project through. All of the above tips apply even when you have the latest and greatest camera. A thoughtful story told on a cell phone camera will be more compelling than random garbage shot with Canon 5D Mark III (or whatever).

9. When editing, cut, don’t fade.
Just because your editing software has six-dozen star wipe fade effects doesn’t mean you should use them. Even dissolves are best used sparingly. As a general rule, stick to simple cuts 99% of time. Dissolves have the effect of slowing down the narrative, which can be appropriate in certain circumstances, but generally it’s a good idea to keep things moving along at a good clip. “Good clip.” Get it?

10. Keep it short.
Stay on-topic and keep it focused. When you finish your first cut, ask yourself if you can make it half as long and still hit your main points. Try it and see if it works. If you’re not cutting out something you like in service of keeping it short, you’re probably doing something wrong.


PSFR chat for 4/15/12

Dreamhost is having a problem with the PSFR server so I’m hosting this week’s PSFR chat at Candleblog. Also, today is this blog’s 8th blogiversary. Cue the balloon-drop.

Show is live today from 4-6pm eastern. Go here for LIVE stream options.


Bill Blathers On and On…

A former student just stopped by and asked if he could interview me about blogging and social media for his netroots class (he had a book by Clay Shirky with him as his text). I said sure and offered to record it for him on a digital audio recorder so he wouldn’t have to take notes as we talked. Since I have the audio file handy, I’m posting the 25-minute interview here in case anyone (mom) is interested in hearing it. In the interview I blather on about blogging, social media, filmmaking, netroots activism, politics and such. Listening to it, I realize I’ve adopted that thing that I hear other narcissistic smart-asses do when talking out their asses about such topics — I use “right” as a placeholder word, instead of “like” or “um” or whatever. I’m such a poseur. Anyway, here’s the mp3.


2011 year in [geek] review

Cross-posted at Geek Mountain State.

Andrew at Geek Mountain State asked me to write a post looking back at nerdy stuff in 2011. I didn’t see every movie or play every video game, so this isn’t an all-encompassing year-in-review post, but as I made my notes preparing to write the thing, I realized it was a pretty full year, as nerdy pursuits go. What follows is a subject-by-subject look at some of the nerdy things that I personally enjoyed in 2011.

There were several super hero films this summer (which seems to be typical nowadays). I missed the one most folks were panning (Green Lantern) but I think I caught the rest of them. The production design was lovely in X-Men First Class, but the film suffered from egregious retconning and some fairly blatant racism and sexism (I know the film is set in the 60s when these were bigger cultural problems than they are now, but did they really have to kill the black super hero first? Really?). I think I would have enjoyed seeing a whole movie devoted to scenes of Magneto jet setting around in the 1960s and hunting down Nazis.

My favorite super hero film was Captain America by a mile. It managed to live up to its source material and tell a compelling self-contained story (unlike Thor, for example) and managed to perk up my interest in anticipation of next summer’s Avengers film all at the same time.

My actual favorite genre film of 2011 is a straight up tie between Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion and Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s The Thing. Contagion is really more of a science thriller than a science fiction film. It’s beautifully shot, directed and edited and it will make you hyper conscious of just how much you touch your own face. It’s the 2001: a Space Odyssey of pandemic films in that it nails the science behind the story so well. Narratively, Contagion plays out a bit like Soderbergh’s war-on-drugs polemic, Traffic, as it’s populated by an ensemble cast of loosely connected characters in different parts of the world who are affected by the outbreak in various ways.

The Thing is something special and something I’ve never seen done on film before. Here’s what I wrote in a Candleblog post that I never published:

Remakes are tricky. The problem is that nobody wants to remake crappy movies — everyone wants to remake classics, which is problematic because the classic films are already great. Remakes have an uphill battle trying to live up to these great original films and few succeed. Go ahead. Try and think of a great remake. The list is really short. Indeed some will  argue that John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing is actually the best remake ever (though technically, Carpenter’s film is not so much  a “remake” of Howard Hawkes’ 1952 classic, The Thing From Another World, as it is a retelling of John Campbell’s science fiction short story, Who Goes There).

Prequels are even trickier. Just ask George Lucas. A successful prequel has to not only stand alone as its own film, it has to live up to the quality of the film it’s setting up and it has to do so while explicitly revealing the on-screen actions that led to what may have been merely throw-away backstory elements in the original. Think of all the acrobatic shenanigans Lucas had to go through at the end of Revenge of the Sith to get all the characters in the right places for the beginning of Star Wars — wipe the protocol droid’s memory, but don’t bother with the R2 unit, he seems harmless enough; Bail Organa always wanted a little princess; Yoda is the greatest Jedi master in the galaxy but he dropped his lightsaber once so now he must exile himself to a swamp world, etc.

Keep these issues in mind as you watch Matthijs van Heijningen’s new version of The Thing, because this film has done something I think no other film has ever done: it’s both a successful remake and a successful prequel. It achieves the goals of both.

I wouldn’t change a word of that. Van Heijningen made a film that is a loving tribute to the original, recreating the basic plot, tension and (nearly) specific scenes of Carpenter’s iteration. The characters’ names and faces are different, but the monster is the same, the setting is essentially the same, and up until the film’s final moments, the basic narrative is the same, as the eponymous Thing picks off the ice station crew members one by one. So it works as a remake of Carpenter’s film, but it’s also a very specific prequel — so meticulously crafted that an uninitiated viewer watching the films back to back might think they were made at the same time. And despite the perfect attention to detail spent getting all of the various pieces in place for the start of Carpenter’s film, almost none of it feels forced or tacked-on (one exception being the ice station crew member who commits suicide by cutting his own throat, just to establish one shot in the 1982 film). I’m hoping van Heijningen has started a trend and that Ridley Scott’s Prometheus will be the next example of this sort of film.

Honorable mention: Attack the Block.

Special Worst Genre Film of 2011 Award: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (see my review here)

I’m a terribly slow reader so my best-of list of genre books will be short. I recently finished Stephen King’s 11/22/63, which is part time travel adventure, part historical fiction and part romance, none of which immediately strike me as Stephen King genres. It’s a great yarn but the SF nerd in me kept asking needling questions about the mechanics of time travel that King never bothered to answer.

Speaking of time travel adventures and historical fiction, my favorite SF book of 2011 was Connie Willis’ All Clear, which was part two of a two-part story begun last year (the first part was called Blackout). These books are set in my favorite of Willis’ universes (visited before in Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog) in which our heroes journey from the time-traveling future of Oxford, England circa 2060 to various points during WWII and then get stuck there.

On my bookshelf now, waiting to be read next are two other 2011 publications, Neil Stephenson’s REAMDE and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Those will have to wait for my 2012 year-in-review post.

Game of Thrones
is the obvious 2011 champion of genre TV. Its loving devotion to the source material is inspiring and its slow-burn storytelling is something I’d like to see more of on TV. Matt Zoller Seitz (one of the best TV writers working now, IMO) described the second half of GoT season one as “The Godfather with swordplay and dragon’s eggs.” Yup. It’s that good.

2011 was also the year my wife and I finally caught up with Fringe and I can safely say that seasons two and three of that show comprise some of the finest SF TV I’ve ever seen.

I should also mention that SyFy’s version of Being Human turned out to be surprisingly good. (As good at the BBC version? Opinions vary.) Falling Skies is the show V really should have been and Walking Dead had a marginally better season than last year.

I couldn’t do a year-end round up of genre TV for 2011 without mentioning the insipid and blisteringly stupid NBC show, The Cape. Cancellation is too good for this turd. Every copy must be destroyed.

I should mention at the outset that I am not a fan of RPG video games. I like my RPGs the classic way — with dice. I mention this because Skyrim does not top my 2011 list, nor does it even make an appearance. I played a little bit of Oblivion once and let’s just say it doesn’t matter how much better Skyrim is, I’m not going to play it.

I did, however, spend a few too many hours playing L.A. Noire from Rockstar Games. I’m a sucker for anything even vaguely GTA-related and LA Noir is like GTA in 1940s LA, only you have to question witnesses. If you play it, do it in B&W. It was designed to be played that way and it really adds to the experience.

Dead Island had the best video game trailer of the year, for sure. Game play is your standard zombie romp, but set in a beautiful tropical locale.

The best video game of 2011 for me was Portal 2. I actually finished it (I rarely actually complete video game stories). It one-ups the brilliant original in two important ways: first, it expands on the physics, introducing new ways to navigate the crazy puzzles that are just as fun as the stuff in the first game; and second, the story is greatly expanded, including a compelling back story, new characters (Wheatly FTW!) and some of the funniest writing in any genre of any storytelling medium this year.

I wanted to include a best-of comics section in this post but I read so few comics this year it just wouldn’t be worth a damn. But I’ll take the opportunity to plug my friend Alex’s excellent SF romance webcomic, Artifice. I’ll make it a New Year’s resolution to read more comics in 2012.

I had some pretty great nerdy real-life experiences this year too. In Austin in March during SXSW I saw Harry Knowles from Ain’t It Cool News interview Guillermo del Toro about horror/fantasy movies on the stage of the Paramount Theater. Also at SXSW, I caught a couple of podcast tapings of Doug Loves Movies, featuring Simon Pegg, director James Gunn (Slither, Super), Rain Wilson, Dave Foley, Kevin Pollack and others. That was pretty great. I also saw They Might Be Giants play a show with Jonathan Coulton on a beautiful late summer evening in Norwich, VT. I interviewed biologist Craig Venter for a magazine article last January. Venter is the guy who created “artificial DNA” in a laboratory and was on the team that first sequenced the human genome. And my wife Emily’s knitted creations got some podcast and twitter love from the Nerdist himself, Chris Hardwick.

I’m sure 2012 will be even nerdier. The Mayans predicted it! See you next year.


Weekend links

Links too delicious not to share…