Ted Chiang is something of a rarity. A writer who specialises in short stories and with a rate of output that is slow, to say the least. Yet every one of his stories is a perfect blend of fascinating science and memorable fiction.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone, therefore, that when I heard that a Hollywood adaptation of one of his stories was on the way, I was both thrilled and terrified. Mainly thrilled, though, so when I finally managed to see Arrival at the weekend my expectations were way too high. And it’s to the credit of all involved that the film managed to fully live up to those expectations.

When twelve alien spacecraft arrive on Earth, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to try to understand the alien language and, therefore, their intent. And then things get interesting.

It’s generally recognised that the language we use influences our perceptions, and you can find plenty of documentation outlining the many benefits of learning a second language. But what about an utterly alien language? And what if that alien language embodies a totally different perception of time to the one we are used to? How far can your perceptions be altered by learning another language?

Arrival is proper science-fiction, that takes an idea and thoroughly explores it. Layered on top of this is an overarching discussion about free will and personal responsibility.

This being a major film, there is plenty of dramatic tension, largely revolving around the perceived intentions of the aliens and the reactions of governments. None of this, though, distracts from the essential thoughtfulness of the film, which currently rates as the best film I’ve seen this year.

Parts: The Clonus Horror

Jay at Assholes Watching Movies recently reviewed The Island, a film that I didn’t see. In fact the only thing I know about this film is that when it was released, people started remarking on how similar it was to a 1979 film called Parts: The Clonus Horror. So much so that the makers of Parts sued Paramount for plagiarism, finally reaching an out of court settlement which is believed to involve a seven figure sum.

I do happen to have a copy of Parts: The Clonus Horror so, the other night, I decided to pull out the DVD and see how well the film stands up.

After a couple of opening scenes (one of which I will come back to), the film proper starts in an idyllic location populated by beautiful young people who spend their time engaging in a variety of sporting activities until they are deemed fit enough to travel to “America”. It’s fair to say that most of these individuals are none too bright and it’s when two individuals or normal intelligence, Richard (Timothy Donnelly) and Lena (Paulette Breen) accidentally meet that things start to go off the rails.

With the word “Parts” in the title and an opening scene that sees the camera panning through a roomful of bagged bodies, it’s fair to say that this is not a film that intends to spring any surprises on the audience. This film is very much a conspiracy thriller and, on these terms, it works reasonably well.

There are a couple of narrative conveniences along the way, but on the whole the plot does a solid job of building towards — and delivering — the horribly inevitable conclusion. This is helped no end that Timothy Donnelly puts in such a likeable as an innocent, confused and completely out of his depth.

While not the greatest film ever made, Parts: The Clonus Horror is a solid thriller and one that attempts — reasonably successfully — to examine some of the potential issues around cloning and the ways in which we can dehumanise people to achieve the most trivial of benefits.

The Call of the Wild

We saw this latest adaptation of the Jack London novel this weekend and… it was a lot better than I expected.

I should admit now that I haven’t read the source novel, nor have I seen any of the countless adaptations and the trailer really didn’t grab me at all.

My partner, however, is a big fan of the novel and so it was that we all traipsed out on Saturday evening for the 8:00 showing of the film. Other showings were available, but this was the only one that was subtitled rather than dubbed and I don’t think any of us were quite ready to hear Harrison Ford growling in Dutch.

Not being familiar with the source novel, and only having the trailer to go on, I was left with the impression that I was letting myself in for yet another family-friendly adventure centring on John Thornton (Ford) and his adorable new hound, Buck. It turns out that I couldn’t have been more wrong — the film is entirely about the dog. Indeed, Ford didn’t make a significant appearance until after the intermission, and even then he was very much the support to the canine lead.

Buck is a boisterous and poorly behaved pet until he is stolen and shipped north where he is sold to U.S. mail-folk Perrault (Omar Sy) and François (Cara Gee). Here he becomes part of a pack, of sled dogs, and begins to develop a sense of his worth — not as a pet but as a working animal.

All good things come to an end, though, and hard times follow for Buck as he falls into the hands of an arrogantly incompetent prospector before, eventually, finding himself in the company of John Thornton ready for the final part of his adventure.

The Call of the Wild is a really good film and one in which (apart from a few uncanny valley moments) Buck’s personality really does shine through and allows for some genuinely canine character development.

I really should go and read the novel.

Five Things #23

Gut Feelings by Peter Watts imagines scenario in which gut flora reprogram the brain’s anger and image-recognition macros via the Vagus Nerve. It is, as the author notes, about as heartwarming as a Peter Watts fantasy can be.

Looking at how people keep on voting, Chris Dillow draws the obvious conclusion that the public does not want economic growth.

A possible third wolf has been sighted up at the Hoge Kempen National Park and its surroundings in Flanders, according to Landschap vzw, the nonprofit association behind Welcome Wolf.

In other Belgian rewilding news, the De Logt brewery will be introducing a ‘Naya’ beer, named after the ‘Belgian’ wolf that was killed last year, on 1st February. Part of the proceeds will be contributed to Welcome Wolf.

Tom Jolliffe takes a jaunt back to the 80’s to see how some of the decade’s biggest fantasy films have aged. Confession: I like Krull. And Time Bandits, for that matter.

Blue Monday

Like probably everyone else with an internet connection, we have seen the trailer for Wonder Woman 1984 and one thing that really leapt out at me was the sound track.

If you are going to set a film in 1984, you can’t go wrong with a bit of New Order.

I thought I had a version of this song somewhere, but it turns out that I don’t and this discovery led to my wandering the dusty highways of and YouTube and the discovery that there is a cover of Blue Monday recorded by Health for Atomic Blonde. This is one of the many films on my “must get around to watching” list.

But that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is to mention Orkestra Obsolete, a group of masked musicians who have rather stunningly managed to perform the song using only instruments available in the 1930s. It really is incredible.

Five Things #22

Domesticated by Timothy Bastek is a zombie story that reminds me of the fact that I never got around to seeing Fido.

Denzil delves into the strange history of Neutral Moresnet.

Tremors recently turned 30. Jennifer Ouellette celebrates the most perfect B movie creature feature ever made.

First it was wolves, now it is otters. Thirty years after they were declared extinct in Flanders, the animals have started to make a comeback. There’s still a long way to go, but things are looking positive.

Jamie Foster and Christopher H. Hendon explain how to make the perfect cup of coffee – with a little help from science.

He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy

Terry Jones died yesterday at the age of 77.

I remember, many years ago, reading Starship Titaninic, a spin-off from The Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy which Jones agreed to write on condition that he could do so in the nude. Or so Douglas Adams claims in the introduction to the novel.

Terry Jones is, of course, best remembered for being part of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and as the director of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, in which he also played Brian’s mum.

This, for my money, is one of the funniest films ever made — if not the funniest. So here is the highlight of a film full of highlights.

Five Things #21

KT Bryski provides a very different take on the story of Red Riding Hood in The Path of Pins, the Path of Needles.

In 2008 Rian Dundon spent 9 months on the road with Fan Bingbing, China’s biggest movie star, and gained a firsthand look at the country’s celebrity-industrial complex.

There are exactly two wolves in the wild in Flanders at present. Pups could be on the way.

Nick Tyrone discusses three things the left gets wrong. Repeatedly.

Ben Orlin presents The Game of Snakes. All you need is a pen and a bit of paper.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

I have grown up with Star Wars. I was nine when I saw the first film (then a self-contained film called Star Wars in which Han shot first) and it was like nothing I had ever seen before. I was hooked and rushed to the cinema when the Empire struck back and was thrilled when the Jedi returned. I sat through the (best forgotten) prequel trilogy more out of nostalgia than anything else and felt that sinking feeling when you see a franchise grinding to a miserable end.

Then Disney took control and, it has to be said, the House of Mouse really do know how to make a film. For me, The Force Awakens was an excellent reworking of the original film and The Last Jedi turned the franchise towards a new direction, leaving me both optimistic about where the next film could go, and slightly concerned about where it would go.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was everything I hoped for and then some.

Right from the start, the film delivers edge of your seat action scenes that leave you wanting to high-five whichever random person is sitting next to you. The dialogue is just as snappy as ever and the characters are all suitably engaging and keep you rooting for them throughout.

This being the end of the final trilogy, there are plenty of nods to what has gone before. None of this is overdone and, instead, it brings a sense of closure to this ending of the trilogy of trilogies and this makes The Rise of Skywalker a very fitting end to the nine film saga.

It is also a truly spectacular film.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a cinematic spectacle that raises the bar for whatever comes next. As such, it really does deserve to be seen on the largest screen you can find with the loudest sound system available.

And, if you haven’t already seen it, prepare to be blown away.