Monday, June 29, 2015

Television Review: The Whispers

Rating: 2 ½ out of 5 Stars  (after 3 episodes)

Bottom Line: It's not a bad show, but it is less than engaging as it fails to take advantage of its creepy premise.

ABC's new Summer series The Whispers is based on / "inspired by" Ray Bradbury's short story "Zero Hour" and follows a silent invasion of Earth where some unseen entity is using children to do its bidding.  Impressionable children under the age of ten are selected and contacted by someone know as Drill.  He communicates with them through lights and other electrical instruments and gives them instructions that often lead to malicious acts.  There is also a mysterious person who keeps showing up in the vicinity of these kids (we find out eventually that he is pilot Sean Bennigan who's plane went missing several months earlier), and he becomes linked to the crimes that the children are committing.

The premise for this series is somewhat interesting and it has some potential to develop into a decent sci fi entry, but I have to admit that after three episodes my attention has quickly waned because of the show's rather unengaging, by-the-numbers delivery.  The premise has a definite creepiness about it and we have seen it developed rather well in other attempts such as The Children of the Corn (the first movie), Torchwood: The Children of Earth and even the Ray Bradbury Theater adaptation of "Zero Hour" (which you can watch on YouTube at this link).  But The Whispers lacks any vision to play up the horror elements at its core, or it was sufficiently scrubbed of that vision by network executives looking to appeal to the broadest audience.  Instead, it takes the procedural angle (with plenty of soap-opera assides thrown in) and it focuses on the adults trying to figure out what is going on with the kids.  And it also piles mystery upon mystery (and throws in the all-too-tired flashbacks) instead getting down to telling a story, as has become the norm with broadcast network sci fi entries in their ongoing attempt to find the next Lost.

I don't consider The Whispers a bad series, it has just failed to engage me thus far and I'm not certain how much more time (if any) I will give it.  It has a decent cast (and its nice to series Heroes alum Milo Ventimiglia back on a sci fi show, even if he does walk around with a perennial wtf look on his face), and the production values are good.  But it just seems to waste the potential of its premise by pushing the genre element to the background behind procedural and soap opera storylines (I am reminded of FlashForward, Alcatraz, No Ordinary Family, and other broadcast networks entries that similarly buried their genre elements).  And with so many options out there for original sci fi and fantasy (you can see a list of over 60 active/returning/upcoming shows at this link), is it worth investing the time in something like The Whispers that seems to be skirting around giving us the good sci fi we are looking for?

I may end up giving this one a few more episodes (and I admit that Wayward Pines finally has me hooked after it meandered about for for half its season), or it may end up just getting lost in the shuffle.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Movie Review: Jurassic World

Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: It delivers the expected thrill-a-minute, audience-pleasing ride that is just as calculating and manufactured as the first movie in the franchise.

1993's Jurassic Park is considered a classic sci fi movie in a large part because of the advancements it offered in CGI sfx and for the roller-coaster ride of a film that it delivered.  And if you judge it on its special effects and thrill-a-minute story-telling, it stands up sufficiently well compared to the other Summer blockbuster fare it has shared the screen with.  But that movie also represents a change that occurred with big-budget sci fi movies at the beginning of the 90's as manufactured franchises started to take over the big screen, calculatingly geared to fill up the theaters on a regular basis with popcorn-munching audiences and which have about the same artistic merit as the theme park attractions they emulate (and I go into that in more detail at this link).  By the third Jurassic Park film that came out in 2001, the series had suffered some franchise-fatigue and was laid to rest for a while.  For today's studios, though, that only means stowing it away for the appropriate amount of time before a revisiting/reworking/rebooting is deemed viable.  And now Jurassic World has arrived to get this franchise back into big-time, money-making mode.

Instead of the more common reboot that we have seen of late, the new film acts as a sequel to the other films, picking the story up in the present day when yet another attempt is made to create a Jurassic Park theme world.  Of course, in the spirit of sequels, this park is bigger and better and the scientists behind the scenes are cooking up new hybrid dinosaurs to thrill the throngs of tourists piling in.  But in good monster-movie tradition, you know that tinkering with science never works out well and before long the newest genetically-modified Frankenstein dinosaur (named Indominus) is running loose and delivering the dino-mayhem that everybody came to the movie to see.

To give Jurassic World credit, it doesn't linger too much on exposition and assumes that the audience knows the basic premise of how these giant lizards were revived (or doesn't really care).  But that just means that the movie can get to the expected child-in-jeopardy scenes that much quicker while also loading on as many monster-movie cliches as possible and throwing in the requisite cardboard cutout bad guys to try and trip up our heroes at every corner.  Chris Pratt does give the movie some life, even if his character is not that inspired as the dinosaur whisperer who understands that these creatures have feelings too and that you can't go tinkering with science without consequences and so on and so forth.  If only the Guardians of the Galaxy writers had stopped by and given him a better script to work with, or maybe if they had brought back Jeff Golblum for some good verbal sparring.

Jurassic World also throws in plenty of homages to the original film (and other monster movies), including revisiting the location of the 1993 movie's final battle.  It even brings in its own version of the original T-Rex, this time playing the role of the good guy Godzilla come to stomp down the bad guy monsters which are running amok.  But don't look at this as inspiration or respectful reverences to the genre as it is just as calculating as the whole movie franchise has been since the beginning.

Interestingly enough, movies like this love to give us the money/greed-driven villains who push science too far and ultimately receive their comeuppance.  Yet the audience remains oblivious to the fact that the constant push by the studios to create bigger, better, more jaw-droppingly mindless entertainment is the real world version of the same thing.  Of course the studio execs know that the retribution the antagonists face in their films are the fairy-tale endings their audiences expect to see, while in the real world the only consequences these movie moguls face is reaping the profits of their excesses as they rake in the box office receipts (Jurassic World is currently on target to pass Avatar as the the highest grossing film of all time).

Buy the Jurassic Park Movies on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon.com:

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Television Review: Wayward Pines

Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: This show delivers a muddled mess that starts out as a creepy Prisoner/Stepford Wives hybrid then decides it wants to go full on sci fi.

Note that this review does have some spoilers, though I still recommend proceeding because it may spare you from some of the more pointless moments of this show.

This series from executive producer M. Night Shyamalan delivers a sci fi / mystery tale based on the novels of the same name by Blake Crouch.  Matt Dillon stars as Secret Service agent Ethan Burke who is looking for two other agents that have gone missing and finds himself in the mysterious town of Wayward Pines after a car accident that occurs in a remote part of Idaho.  While there, he finds the agents he is looking for (one dead, one still alive), but also finds that he is not allowed to leave the town and that everybody there (including the still living agent whom he had previously had a fling with) is acting rather strange in a Stepford Wives kind of way.  Meanwhile, Burke's wife and son go looking for him when they do not get sufficient answers from the Secret Service as to why he has gone missing.  This results in them also eventually stumbling into Wayward Pines (again, after an accident) for a great big family reunion with all sporting WTF looks on their faces.  That takes us through the fourth episode of the series.  Then the fifth episode completely changes the game and turns this into an entirely different show . . .

Before this series debuted, I heard claims that it wanted to deliver the next Twin Peaks to television, which maybe made some sense because it also took place in a remote Northwestern town.  But then after the first four episodes, any comparisons to that 90's cult favorite show could go no further than the fact that both took place in a remote Northwestern town.  What made Twin Peaks so interesting (at least early on) was the colorful, quirky characters and the witty dialogue that carried each episode.  Wayward Pines woefully has none of that as it stalls on a one-note tone across its first four episodes.  It goes for the creepy angle and then never gets out of that gear.  It's populated with all these characters who possess a politely menacing demeanor to make us think "Ooooh, that's creepy!"  It has that perennial droning ambient music in the background to make us think "Ooooh, that's creepy!"  It has these weird lapses in time to make us think "Ooooh, that's creepy!"  And so on, ad naseum.

But while it muddles through that with plenty of copy and paste dialogue and scenes for four episodes, all along teasing a Prisoner-esque setting that it never really develops, it then pulls the rug out from under us in its fifth episode.  The sudden twist that comes midway through its ten-episode first season (and no, I'm not buying into that "limited run" line) and introduces a whole new show with a much stronger science fiction premise which leaves us saying why the f$%k did you bother with all that other crap in the first place?!

After the fourth episode, I was ready to give up on the show because I had grown completely bored with its one-note "Ooooh, that's creepy!" direction.  But I heard on the internet that the fifth episode was a game-changer, so I stuck with it.  And I am intrigued enough now to continue to the next episode, but I'm also pissed that they made me wade through the mess of the first four hours.  Maybe that will all come into play later, but I'm not certain how much I care at this point.  If you haven't started watching the show yet and think you might be interested, I advise maybe catching the first episode and then finding some recaps of the next three on the internet somewhere.  Then just jump onboard with episode five.  If you are watching and haven't made it to the fifth ep yet, just know that you have a huge bait-and-switch course change ahead of you.

As M. Night Shyamalan is involved with the show and he is known for his big twists, I'm not sure how much of a part he played with the mid-season game-changer (remember that this is based on a series of books).  And I'm not one of the many Shyamalan haters because he has managed to do some excellent films like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and the often over-looked Devil.  So I'm not willing to blame the missteps of this show on him.  But this is a mess of a series that wastes the talents of Matt Dillon and the other good actors involved.  Maybe the course change can salvage the show, but it definitely has approaching the next few episodes with an attitude that has me ready to cut bait quick.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Blockbuster Overload: Jurassic Park

In preparation for my upcoming review of Jurassic World, I am re-running my previous Blockbuster Overload piece on Jurassic Park.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 5 Stars

Jurassic Park (Widescreen Collector's Edition)Jurassic Park is the Steven Spielberg directed film based on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name that marked a major turning point in visual effects as CGI animation took the next step forward in making the fantastic come to life on the movie screen. The film, which also succeeded in introducing the terms velociraptor and raptor into the common vernacular, focuses on an attempt by billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to create a “wildlife” park populated with living dinosaurs. By taking DNA samples from fossilized mosquitoes in-cased in amber, scientists working for Hammond manage to clone the giant lizards, creating modern day real life dinosaurs. Hammond invites several scientists (played by Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum) to observe this park and to give their opinion on whether it would be safe for tourists in order to assure his investors. But hey, it’s a Steven Spielberg movie and it would make for a pretty boring flick if they showed up, signed off on it, then left. Weaselly geek Dennis Nedry (played with conniving villainy by Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight) is in the mix trying to steal a fertilized dinosaur egg for a rival corporation. His machinations result in multiple SNAFUs that find the scientists fleeing through the park with many hungry dinosaurs in close pursuit.

While Jurassic Park represented a significant leap forward in onscreen visual effects, it also marked an important shift with mega-budget blockbusters that would become much more noticeable in the years to follow.  This movie was delivered to the theaters not so much as a film designed to tell a great tale and inspire audiences but more so as the first part of a planned franchise that would ultimately branch out into multiple sequels, comics, games, theme park rides, toys, etc. Unlike the early days of the blockbusters in the 70’s when young filmmakers like Spielberg and George Lucas were inspired to unlock the potential of movie-making and bring the fantastic to life on big screen with films like Jaws, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, this film (like Jedi and the Star Wars prequel films that would follow) was much more about creating a product with an extended shelf-life. Previous movie franchises such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, and the long-running Bond movies had proved their earning potential with a sustained, dedicated audience that would return for each installment. So why not start focusing on blockbusters as a franchise? Jurassic Park definitely had much potential in that area which I believe proved a strong draw for Spielberg and his backers when approaching this project.

Not to say that Jurassic Park is necessarily a bad movie. It can be quite enjoyable if for no other reason than its visual effects. Long gone were the days of a man in a rubber dinosaur suit (for Hollywood at least) or stop motion animation (though I still look fondly on that sfx genre) or regular-sized lizards made to tower over actors with blue screen effects. The CGI giant lizards of Jurassic Park were among the most realistic movie monsters we had ever seen on the big screen (though 1981's Dragonslayer did a pretty good job with go-motion a decade prior), and still stand up today as state of the art despite the technical leaps forward since 1993. But instead of using this wizardry to enhance the story and to give the viewers the fulfillment of a well-rounded film experience, the special effects became the movie. Because without the breath-taking CGI, this movie quickly falls apart. It has little in the way of character development (though Jeff Goldblum once again managed to fill in the blanks of a sparse script and steal the show) and even less in the way of story to cover the gaps between action scenes. Thematically, it harkens back to Spielberg’s Jaws a bit as well as plenty of other disaster and creatures-run-amok films, and the story is pretty much on auto-pilot through much of the film. And along with its copy-and-paste dialogue, Spielberg resorts to one of the most manipulative gimmicks ever devised (that he would return to time and again through his carrier): the child-in-jeopardy ploy. He constantly tries to tug at the heart-strings of the audience by placing Hammond’s grandchildren in harm’s way throughout the film, even though we know they will never wind up as dinosaur kibble. Basically, in my book when you turn to the child-in-jeopardy spiel, the inspiration well has completely run dry.

Jurassic Park is the Hollywood equivalent of a rollercoaster ride and it succeeds on that level, but never rises above it. It wowed audiences with its dazzling CGI and became the biggest grossing movie up to that time (topping Spielberg’s own E.T.), but that was the plan all along. You can’t convince me that this film was ever seen as anything other than the launching point of a franchise. The art of film-making never came into play here as the focus of attention remained firmly on creating a new brand (that would go on to gross nearly $2 billion plus thus far). And the cynicism that had crept into the Star Wars franchise by the time of Return of the Jedi existed right from the beginning with Jurassic Park and drove it to the big screen and beyond. And while blockbuster franchises had existed since the 70’s (and perhaps the 60’s if you include the Bond films), Jurassic Park marked a significant shift toward these becoming a corporate brand much more interested in pushing a product than advancing the art of film-making. That shift in attitude would become more prevalent throughout the rest of the 90’s and would pretty much dominate the blockbuster genre in the 00’s and beyond.

Buy the Jurassic Park Movies on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon.com:

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Looking at the New Summer Sci Fi / Fantasy Entries: Humans and Fear the Walking Dead Should be Winners, Killjoys Could be Good Shoot-Em-Up Fun

humans-amc-cancelledAs of the current count, I see
eleven new sci fi / fantasy shows set to debut in the months of June through July (and that's tacking on Golan the Insatiable because it's right on the cusp with its May 31st premiere).  That's quite a lot considering the hot months also have (at current count) over a dozen returning shows (you can see the full schedule at this link).  So which ones are worth watching?  Hard to say, especially for some of the new entries, but below is my guide to each of those.  I have included the official synopsis for each with my comments beneath the entries.  They are listed in order of their premiere dates (links are to the show's page on this site):

Golan the Insatiable (FOX, Debuted May 31st): Golan is the dark lord or an alternate universe, that comes to our world and is befriended by a little goth girl and her family and buffoonery ensue as he deals with everyday life. IMDb.com

Johnny Jay Says: I never caught this one when it ran on FOX's Animation Domination, and I haven't seen the premiere yet (but it's in my queue).  Looks like it might be worth giving a look for some Summer chuckles, though.

The Whispers (ABC, Debuts June 1st):  We love to play games with our children. But what happens when someone else starts to play with them too? Someone we don’t know. Can’t see. Can’t hear. In The Whispers, someone or something — is manipulating the ones we love most to accomplish the unthinkable.  ABC.com

Johnny Jay Says: This is based on the Ray Bradbury short story "Zero Hour" which definitely has me intrigued.  But it was originally scheduled to bow at mid-season before getting pushed to a Summer run which has me worried that it may be starting off DOA just like The CW's The Messengers.  I'm still going to give it a look.

Stitchers (ABC Family, Debuts June 2nd):  Follows Kirsten, a young woman recruited into a covert government agency to be ‘stitched’ into the minds of the recently deceased, using their memories to investigate murders and decipher mysteries that otherwise would have gone to the grave. Working alongside Kirsten is Cameron, a brilliant neuroscientist whose passion for the program is evident in his work. The secret program is headed by Maggie, a skilled veteran of covert operations, and includes Linus, a socially immature bioelectrical engineer and communications technician. Kirsten’s roommate, Camille, a gifted computer science grad student, is also recruited to use her skills to assist Kirsten in her new role as a ‘stitcher.’ ABCFamily.com

Johnny Jay Says: Yet another series about someone who talks to/communicates with/sees through the eyes of/channels dead people and uses the information to solve crimes.  This one has received almost no promotion (I just stumbled on its existence today), which is not necessarily a good sign.  I know I will be passing on it.

Sense8 (Netlfix, Debuts June 5th): One gunshot, one death, one moment out of time that irrevocably links eight minds in disparate parts of the world, putting them in each other’s lives, each other’s secrets, and in terrible danger. Ordinary people suddenly reborn as “Sensates.” Netflix

Johnny Jay Says: Will we get the good Wachowskis (Matrix) or the bad Wachowskis (Jupiter Ascending)?  And will J. Michael Straczynski be able to temper their excesses?  The early reviews have not been great on this one, but if JMS is involved then I have to check it out.

Dark Matter (Syfy, Debuts June 12th):  In Dark Matter, the crew of a derelict spaceship is awakened from stasis with no memories of who they are or how they got on board. Facing threats at every turn, they have to work together to survive a voyage charged with vengeance, betrayal and hidden secrets.  Syfy.com

Johnny Jay Says: The first of two Syfy Summer space-based shows (the other being Killjoys) and some high expectations are coming with this one.  It was created by Stargate vets Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie and is based on their comic book series of the same name.  The network is hoping this can become one of their next flagship franchises, so the pressure is on.  I will definitely be tuning in.

Proof (TNT, Debuts June 16th):  Jennifer Beals plays Dr. Carolyn Tyler, who has suffered the recent, devastating loss of her teenage son, the breakup of her marriage and a growing estrangement from her daughter. Carolyn is persuaded by Ivan Turing (Modine), a cancer-stricken tech inventor and billionaire to investigate cases of reincarnation, near-death experiences, hauntings and other phenomena, all of it in the search for evidence that death is not the end. TNTDrama

Johnny Jay Says:  This series may only have minimal genre elements but still may be of interest to those who have tuned into supernatural dramas like Ghost Whisperer and Medium. It does have the added bonus of having Eureka‘s Joe Morton (an all-time favorite actor of mine) onboard in a supporting role, but I can't say this will be high on my Summer viewing list.

killjoys-syfy-cancelledKilljoys (Syfy, Debuts June 19th):  Killjoys follows a fun-loving, hard living trio of interplanetary bounty hunters sworn to remain impartial as they chase deadly warrants throughout the Quad, a distant system on the brink of a bloody, multiplanetary class war.  Syfy.com

Johnny Jay Says:  The second of Syfy's space-based Summer entries (the other being Dark Matter), this looks like it could be just good shoot-em-up fun.  It might pair up well with TNT's GI-Joe-saves-the-world series The Last Ship.

Humans (AMC, Debuts June 28th):  A bold new eight-part drama series from AMC, Channel 4 and Kudos, is set in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for any busy family is a ‘Synth’ – a highly-developed robotic servant eerily similar to its live counterpart. AMCTV.com

Johnny Jay Says:  Coming from AMC, this one has some pedigree to live up to as that network has produced two of the best shows television ever with The Walking Dead and non-genre entry Breaking Bad (and I hear that Mad Men show wasn't half bad either).  This one is currently at the top of my Summer viewing list and I hope AMC lets it fully explore some of the interesting concepts in its premise.

Zoo (CBS, Debuts June 30th):  A global thriller about a wave of violent animal attacks against humans sweeping the planet. James Wolk will play Jackson Oz, a young, renegade American zoologist who spends his days running safaris in the wilds of Africa when he begins noticing the strange behavior of the animals. As the assaults become more cunning, coordinated and ferocious, he is thrust into the race to unlock the mystery of the pandemic before there’s no place left for people to hide. CBS.com

Johnny Jay Says:  This one sounds like it could deliver some good, dumb fun with its global/ecological disaster premise in the same vein as TNT's The Last Ship.  I think they would be best advised to keep it action-packed and not too heady (just like the other show mentioned) for it to appeal to the Summer audience.  Seems like it could be a good counter-balance to the heavier material that Humans and Fear the Walking Dead will deliver (both of which are topping my Summer viewing list).

Scream (MTV, Debuts June 30th):  What starts as a YouTube video going viral, soon leads to problems for the teenagers of Lakewood and serves as the catalyst for a murder that opens up a window to the town's troubled past. Everyone has secrets. Everyone tells lies. Everyone is fair game.  MTV.com

Johnny Jay Says:  How do you do Scream without ghostface (which is the current plan as I understand it)?  For that matter, how do you drag this out into an ongoing series?  The movie franchise was already getting tired by its third entry, so I don't have a lot of confidence in this show breathing new life into the original concept.

Fear-The-Walking-Dead-LogoFear the Walking Dead (AMC, Debut TBD):  What did the world look like as it was transforming into the horrifying apocalypse depicted in The Walking Dead? This summer, AMC will answer that question with Fear The Walking Dead, an all-new original series set in Los Angeles, following new characters as they face the beginning of the end of the world.  AMCTV.com

Johnny Jay Says:  This seems like a can't miss entry as it expands on the world of The Walking Dead and gives us a look at the early days of the zombie-pocalypse.  This one, along with the same network's Humans, will be topping my viewing list for the Summer.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Book Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars
Audiobook Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

The Man in the High Castle is Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel that takes place in an alternate history where the Axis powers won World War II.  In his timeline, the war lasted until 1947 and control of the United States was split between Japan and Germany following the end of the conflict.  The book takes place several years later in America during the 1950's and follows several intertwining storylines.  One involves the power struggle that ensues in Germany following the death of Adolf Hitler's successor Martin Borman.  Another involves attempts to inform Japanese officials in America of a plot by the Nazis to launch a nuclear strike on their home country and thus take full control of the world.  Another involves an assassination attempt on the author of the book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which posits another reality in which the Allied powers won the war (though it has its differences from our own timeline).

The book is quite interesting, though I found it ultimately unsatisfying.  Philip K. Dick has always been a great idea man (demonstrated by the number of his concepts that have been adapted to film and television), though I personally find he tends to come up a bit short at times as a writer.  His ideas tend to work better in short stories where he can stay more focused with less room for meandering (more on that at this link).  With his novels (including his most famous, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), his writing tends to stray and become muddled at times (more on that at this link).  That's definitely the case with The Man in the High Castle as he fails to give a satisfying resolution to several of his storylines and some just seem tacked on (like the fascination the Nazis and Japanese have with artifacts of Americana).  The setting, though, is quite fascinating and I found it interesting that he gave an almost (though no quite) sympathetic view of the Japanese occupation of the U.S. and of that country's culture in general.  But there was so much in the book that cries out to be developed further, and when it ends rather abruptly it leaves you feeling cheated.  Ultimately, it appears Dick's goal with the book was less about exploring this alternate reality he created and more about delving into the philosophy and predictive nature of the I Ching.  An interesting idea in its own right, but not what I was looking for from this alternate history novel.

Amazon Instant Video is adapting this book as one of their original series, and they are taking plenty of liberties with it as has typically been the case with Dick's works.  But several of the basics are there with the division of the U.S. between Germany and Japan, the ensuing power struggle among the Nazis, as well as the suggestion of an alternate-alternate reality where the Allies won the war.  I'm hoping that show will dive into some of the more interesting possibilities that Dick suggested about this alternate reality but failed to flesh out. The pilot is currently available for viewing at Amazon (at this link) and the series will kick off later this year.  Perhaps, as with Blade Runner, the adaptation will improve upon the original.

As for the audiobook version (currently available from Audible.com), Tom Weiner does a decent job of narrating the story, though I wouldn't call it a standout performance.  He delivers a very mechanical reading, especially early on, and has an annoying habit of drawing out the last word in every sentence.  But he does do a god job with the Japanese and German accents and also with differentiating between the many characters.  And his robotic idiosyncracies become less noticeable and less of a distraction as you progress through the book.

Overall, The Man in the High Castle is a decent book with some very interesting ideas and worth the read (which isn't too long at about eight and a half hours for the audiobook).  But you might enjoy it better if you go in with the understanding that it is less about exploring the alternate reality that Dick has created and more of an observation on Asian philosophy, particularly the I Ching.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Audiobook Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick

I am rerunning this previous Audiobook review in preparation for my upcoming review of The Man in the High Castle.

Book Rating: 3 ½ or of 5 Stars
Audiobook Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars

This infamous Philip K. Dick novel is set in the near future world of 2001 (the book was published in 1968) when Earth is suffering from the effects of "World War Terminus" which has destroyed much of the planet and left many impacted by the nuclear fallout that followed the conflict.  The survivors have been encouraged to leave the planet and colonize other worlds (with Mars being the closest location), and as an incentive they are given human androids servants if they leave Earth.  However, some of these androids (“andies” as they are referred to) flee their servitude and return to Earth.  In these cases, bounty hunters that work for the police departments hunt them down and “retire” them.  In San Francisco, Dave Holden is the lead bounty hunter, but he is put in the hospital by a Nexus 6 android, a superior model with a highly advanced brain.  Holden’s backup, Rick Deckard, is brought in and is dispatched to retire the six fugitive androids in the city.  Interspersed with this story is that of Deckard’s attempts to deal with his depressed wife (who won’t use the mood organs properly to adjust her temperament) and to acquire a real animal (a sign of status in what’s left of society) to replace the electric sheep he currently owns.  We also follow the life of J.R. Isidore, a “special”/”chicken-head” whose IQ has been detrimentally impacted by radiation.  Three of the androids come to his building to escape notice and he befriends them and tells them he will protect them.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is widely recognized among genre fans as the basis for Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction film Blade Runner.  While Scott’s adaptation of the book took plenty of liberties with the source material, structurally they share many similarities.  In both, a group of superior Nexus 6 androids escapes from an off-world colony and returns to Earth.  A bounty hunter named Dave Holden (in the book and film) is incapacitated by one of the Nexus 6, and Rick Deckard is brought in to takeover the pursuit (in the book he is Holden’s backup, in the movie he is coaxed out of retirement).  Deckard then goes to the company that manufactures the androids (Rosen Industries in the book, the Tyrell Corporation in the movie) and administers the Voigt-Kampff empathy test used for detecting artificial humans on a person who works there (Rachel) as a control subject before administering it to an android.  It turns out she is an android, but did not know it (though in the book this is suggested as a ploy to throw off Deckard and to discredit the Voigt-Kampff test).  Several of the escaped Nexus 6 androids take refuge in a mostly vacant building that has only one other inhabitant (the mentally challenged Isidore in the book, the genetic designer and employee of Tyrell J.F. Sebastian in the movie).  After retiring the other fugitive androids, Deckard pursues the remaining Nexus 6 to this building where they have their last stand. 

Similar structurally, but still very different stories.  Blade Runner is much more atmospheric, moody, and action-oriented while it also offers plenty of moments of introspection and asks the viewers to question what it means to be human.  The book delves further into the philosophical side and while it questions what it means to be human it also asks what it truly means to be alive.  Are the humans in this book really living better, more meaningful lives than the androids--who have only a short life-span but who seek to find some sort of meaning to their existence?  The humans concern themselves with possessing animals (ostensibly to preserve the few remaining species, but it’s really more about social status), they control their feelings artificially with mood organs, and they fill their lives with the sham-religion of Mercerism and the daily exploits of The Buster Friendly Show.  These are interwoven into the underlying themes of the book and they help give the story its depth.

But unfortunately, these concepts don’t quite carry the book as well as you would hope.  Phillip K. Dick is very much an idea guy and his tales generally center around one or two philosophical concepts that provide the central theme, with story development really an afterthought for him.  His ideas work best in shorter form like “Minority Report” and “We Can Dream it for You Wholesale” (and you see me review of those at this link), though even those also fall a bit short of delivering a well-rounded story (they still succeed better than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep).  With a novel-length tale, Dick tends to meander and the story feels rather padded.  And he leaves too many loose ends dangling without satisfying resolution (J.R. Isadore’s story, the mock-police department run by androids, the Phil Resch character, and more).

Another drawback of this novel is that the main character Rick Deckard is not a particularly strong central figure.  It’s not that he is an unlikeable anti-hero type, it’s more that he seems like a very weak individual and you wonder how he ever succeeded as a bounty hunter in the first place.  I realize that’s part of the point, but it makes it difficult to empathize with Deckard (hmm, maybe the book is a Voigt-Kampff test on the reader?) and also results in somewhat of a difficult read.  Of course part of my issue here is that Blade Runner is one of my all-time favorite movies, so I expect the same sort of heightened experience that the film delivered instead of the slow-burn of the book.  If I was not comparing the two as much (which I find it almost impossible not to do), I might enjoy it more.  But in any case, I find this book less than satisfying even if it does deliver some interesting questions and though-provoking concepts.

That said, I still recognize it as an important work of science fiction that deals with some ground-breaking ideas and should be considered an important work in the genre.  It’s just that its accomplishments and reputation don’t always translate to a good read, similar to Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.  Science fiction fans will feel obliged to encounter Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep at some point, and I do encourage reading it, just go in with expectations tempered.  And also know that you will find better examples of Phillip K. Dick’s talent in his shorter stories like the ones mentioned above.

The audiobook version that I listened to was read by long-time audiobook veteran Scott Brick who has many genre titles to his credit.  He delivers his usual good reading, though I have to admit that I did not feel like his voice fit this book as well as when I have heard him read the works of authors like Isaac Asimov.  His monotone seems to better fit the dryer writing of Asimov's works and actually complements that author's prose.  His reading here didn’t quite seem to flow as well with Dick’s writing, though I wouldn’t say it was bad or detracted from the book.  He did a decent job, I just like him better with other authors.  Still, this is a good way to encounter this book, and if you have not read it yet I would suggest getting the audiobook version.  Note that it does go under the title Blade Runner (even though that term is exclusively from the movie) and claims to be "adapted from" Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but it is the original Philip K. Dick novel.  It is available from Audible.com.