Top 3 Episodes in “Love, Death & Robots” Volume 2

“Love, Death & Robots” was one of my favorite science fiction shows that Netflix has released and this Volume continues that same quality. We sadly only have 8 episodes so this time I’m choosing my 3 favorite episodes versus the Top 5 I would have chosen if the Volume had been longer. The entire Volume is worth watching though and range from comedic, action heavy to meditative. Each of the stories are compelling in their own way but only 3 were favorites for me. I hope we get a Volume 3 as Tim Miller has created a beautiful project in this animated science fiction anthology series. I’ll also post my Top 5 Episodes in Volume 1 at the end of this review.

SPOILERS ahead

3rd) “Pop Squad”

Episode 3, based on story by Paolo Bacigalupi.

“Pop Squad” is an episode that at first feels derivative of “Blade Runner” with the future cop perspective and the immortality exploration of “Altered Carbon.” The original story is adapted from Paolo Bacigalupi with the script by Philip Gelatt and directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson. The episode is beautifully directed and captures the poverty of those caught at the bottom being hunted by future cops for having kids as immortals live in pyramids above the sky. Briggs is our detective and his arc begins with us seeing his job as he kills 2 kids and carries that guilt until the end eventually changing before his death as he protects a mother and child from his detective partner Pentle. In the end we see him surrounded a city overgrown by forest showing his return to life versus the dead perspective of the immortals where there are no plants and all of life lived is an escape. It was a compelling arc and it was believable how Briggs changed to become a better person.

2nd) “Snow in the Desert”

Episode 4, based on story by Neal Asher.

“Snow in the Desert” is a beautifully animated episode by Unit Image with the directors being Leon Berelle, Dominique Boidin, Remi Kozyra and Maxime Luere with the Neal Asher story being adapted to script once more by Philip Gelatt. This is an episode that feels like a great pilot to a show. We learn A.I.’s run humanity and multiple factions are after the immortal Snow to use his DNA to create more immortals. In the end he is rescued by the Earth Central Intelligence Agent Hirald. We learn that she is mostly synthetic and the outsiders accept one another. Her mission is kind of dropped on Snow coming in willingly which is why it feels like a pilot for a show and I would watch a show in this world. The aliens, A.I. and human drama is amazing and compelling.

1st) “Ice”

Episode 2, based on story by Rich Larson.

“Ice” has my favorite animation in all the episodes of the show. Passion Animation Studios did a beautiful job on it. The episode was directed by Robert Valley with Philip Gelatt adapting Rich Larson’s story to script. The story follows 2 brothers being Fletcher and Sedgewick on a colony world with Sedgewick being the only unmodified person on the colony. It is a great episode as we see Sedgewick become comfortable in himself as Fletcher’s friends come to accept him and he even saves his brother’s life showing that there is danger on the colony world regardless of if you are modified or not. We also get to see some beautiful Ice Whales who Fletcher and his friends were protecting when they destroyed the machines that were killing them. It is a reflective peace and I loved the relationship between the brothers.

I really hope we get a Volume 3 as Tim Miller really has created an amazing science fiction anthology series that I think introduces people to the many great science fiction authors out there while also showing just how powerful short fiction can be. Like Volume 1 I definitely recommend checking this series out if you haven’t yet, it is well worth your time.

Here are my Top 5 Episodes of “Love, Death & Robots” Volume 1.:

“Yasuke” Season 1 – A Tonal Clash Between Sci. Fi., Fantasy and History

“Yasuke” is an anime that could have been great if it had stuck with the historical inspired basis of the story of Yasuke being an African samurai under the Nobunaga Shogunate. There is enough drama with exploring character relationships and culture but instead we have magic and mechs thrown in and this story ends up being an unfocused mess that I cannot recommend. I’ll get into more of what I mean in the SPOILERS but going in this is a story that in the end doesn’t work.

The anime was created by LeSean Thomas.

The story follows Yasuke (Jun Soejima, Lakeith Stanfield) as he faces his trauma after the fall of Nobunaga as the Daimyō and other magical forces pull him back into conflict as he must protect a magical child named Saki (Kiko Tamura, Maya Tanida) whose magical power they seek to steal.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Animation – The animation is beautiful. There are stills in this that are picturesque and it is easily the only thing that fully worked in this anime. I want to see more animation as character expressions are full and the use of colors is vibrant and brings the world to life.

The Mercenaries – There are 4 mercenaries who work for the first villain we meet, a Mutant Catholic Priest. We have a Russian woman who can shapeshift into a bear, a woman from somewhere in Europe who fights with a mask and scythe, a robot who is sentient and is her friend and a Shaman from Africa who summons spirits that can harm physicals beings. They end up taking the money off the priest after he is defeated by Yasuke and Saki and then turn in the final battle and all die except for the Shaman in the final battle as Saki had promised them money if they joined the fight. These 4 could have had the show be about them and worked as they are the few characters who aren’t flat and actually have personality.

The Nobunaga Story – There is a solid story here that could have been great if it had been the focus (that or fully give hte Mercenaries their own show and go full Sci. fi. and fantasy). Nobunaga is seeking to reform Japan and has a woman serving him who is a Samurai as well as Yasuke from Africa. He is the leader who is trying to change Japan and is up against the racism from the traditionalists. This is a great story that we only get through flashbacks. This should have been the show as Nobunaga and Yasuke’s relationship as almost family is compelling.

Yasuke – Yasuke is a compelling character as a samurai without a lord who finds something to fight for again in defending Saki and finding someone to help her train in her magic. This is his character arc as outside of this we see his adoption into Nobunaga’s court and the fall of the Shogunate against the Daimyo. Also LaKeith Stanfield is an amazing actor but through most of this show his voice just sounded tired which hurt the performance.

The Cons:

Saki’s Story – Saki is a powerful magic girl who everyone is seeking because of her power. Her arc is accepting her power and defeating the Daimyo and Mutant Catholic Priest when she finds confidence in her own magic and works with Yasuki. Sadly there isn’t much going on with her character. She misses her mom after her power kills her mom but even her magic’s ability to hurt others accidently is never fully realized or explored. This was a story with potential but also an unneeded story as the Yasuke and Nobunaga court drama was compelling enough as is. This story did nothing new and didn’t do the clichés it used well.

The Villains – The villains in this are all one-dimensional characters seeking power. They are so lazily written and how their power exists either as a mutant or being an ancient magical being like the Daimyō is never explained. These villains felt lazy and weren’t interesting in their execution. The Daimyo at least had an interesting design as a mutant spider lady but that is the only positive I can give.

Tonal Clash – When we are in the flashbacks it feels like a historically inspired anime and it doesn’t need robots, mechs and magic. Whenever we jump to the present though that is all the show is. These anime clichés hurt what could have been a good story. Either be the historically inspired anime or be the sci. fi. and fantasy adventure story with shapeshifters and robots. Because of the heaviness of the historical drama the tonal clash completely wrecked what could have been a compelling story.

This is an anime I didn’t hate but it is completely forgettable and not worth watching. Definitely check out some of the art for it though as it is a really beautiful looking show. I’m excited for “Cannon Busters” Season 2, LeSean Thomas’s other anime as it knows what it is and all the characters we are introduced to are compelling. The rules and world also feel fully realized. This anime does not have a fully realized world. We have a historical drama trapped in a fantasy and sci. anime and the story is ruined because of it. It needed to pick one and tell a great story.

Final Score: 5 / 10

Stargate SG – 1 – Season 1, Episode 2 – “The Enemy Within” – The Threat and Exploration of the Goa’uld

Where the first episode tries to accomplish a lot and is extremely ambitious and doesn’t quite succeed because of it, the second episode is simple and accomplishes a lot and sets up much conflicts that will payoff later in the series. “The Enemy Within” is easily an example of “Stargate SG-1” at it’s best for that reason and I can’t wait to see once more how some of those stories payoff. Without going into SPOILERS, this is one I recommend.

The episode was directed by Dennis Berry and written by Brad Wright.

The story unfolds as Major Kawalsky is experiencing blackouts as the SG Team must find out why while contending with the Major Kennedy from the Pentagon who wants to bring in Teal’c for study.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

Teal’c Learning the History of the Earth and the System Lords – Teal’c while speaking to Colonel Kennedy sent from the Pentagon recounts how the Jaffa and System Lords were created a long time ago on a long forgotten world and learns that the world was Earth in turn leading to people realizing that ancient humans are scattered through the galaxy and as Teal’c says they need protection against the System Lords. It is a cool reveal and you see Teal’c have hope when he learns of Earth’s past.

Major Charles Kawalsky – As someone who started out as a character with almost no development, his last episode is a really powerful exploration of him. After a Goa’uld hijacked him in the pilot he has moments where he blacks out and it attempts to activate the Stargate. This leads to his fight against it and at one point asking to be killed rather than give it any chance of control. The fighter is a huge aspect of his character as his friendship with Jack, where he asks to be cremated. It is a touching moment that really humanizes the man as he hadn’t been written prior. This was a sad but powerful sendoff for him made all the more sad by the belief he is safe when the surgery to remove the Goa’uld was believed to be a success.

The Goa’uld Threat – We have the Gao’uld constantly attacking the closed Stargate (so it can never be used) and the Goa’uld who controls Kalawaski and uses him to take hostages, hurt and to kill. He’s a powerful threat and almost wins showing just how dangerous a single Gao’uld soldier left to it’s own devices is. I like that Teal’c defeated it and in turn officially becomes the 4th member of SG-1.

The Consequences of the Pilot – We have Sam and Daniel recounting the events of the prior episode. Sam in awe of the threat and history they discovered and Daniel worrying for his wife who was taken over by Apophis’s mate. We also of course have Kawalsky being taken over by the Goa’uld and his eventual death because of it. The Pentagon’s interest in the Stargate and Apophis’s constant attacks on the gate with plots for future retaliation. All of this came out of the actions from the pilot and is a great follow-up.

Jack O’Neill – Jack and his friendship with Teal’c and Kawalsky is a major part of what defines the episode. He is a guy who always fights for his friends and has no patience for corrupt folks like Major Kennedy. In this way he is the human element and him coming out of retirement to be a part of SG-1 defines his relationship to authority and his work. The people are the reason he’s here and this episode illustrates it beautifully.

Teal’c – This is the episode where Teal’c finally becomes an official member of SG-1 after he stops the Goa’uld who has possessed Kawalsky. His world is changed forever but he deals with all his trials with Major Kennedy and being a prisoner with silent acceptance and living his code of honor and also his curiousity, as he wants to see Earth. A highlight for me was him joining the team for their first mission together, which gave a high note to a sad episode.

Conflict Between Stargate Command and the Pentagon – This will become a running theme in the series as the Pentagon wants to use or deal with alien threats for their own gain at the cost of people while SGC firmly stands against them. Kennedy is the first face of that with Hammond and O’Neill as the ones standing against him.

The Cons:

How the Goa’uld Took Over – The reason for the Goa’uld surving the procedure is never properly explained and feels almost like plot armor so Teal’c could have that final fight. A little more explenation from it on how it survived could have easily fixed that though.

This is a great episode. It does so much showing rather than telling and it establishes the Goa’uld threat, how great Teal’c is as a member of the team and that the SGC’s heart is in the right place. All these elements coalesce together to give us a personal story around a character before we barely knew and a promise for stories in the future.

Final Score: 9 / 10

“Altered Carbon” Season 2 – Expands the World but is Less Focused

Altered Carbon (TV Series 2018–2020) - IMDb

“Altered Carbon” is a good sequel to Season 1. They don’t have a book to go off of so I’m glad they explored areas of the universe that really weren’t explored in Season 1. Where it falls apart is does repeat some of the story beat from before and it is less focused in the end. This is still worth watching though if you were a fan of the first season.

The story follows Takeshi Kovaks when he is caught by the bounty hunter Trepp when the Meth Axley pays her to capture him in order to hire Kovaks as a bodyguard. Kovaks agrees when Axley hints he can lead him to the still living Quellcrist Falconer. When he arrives at Harlan’s World Kovak’s finds himself thrown him into plots beyond his control.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – This season covers the frontier as Harlan’s world is far from the Protectorate and has bounty hunters, A.I.’s who run dig sites and of course the Elder aliens and cyborgs. The world is just as rich but gets out of the heavy Noir feel of Season 1.

The A.I.’s – The A.I.’s are wonderful in this. We are introduced to a bunch who are retired and hanging out who all used to run dig sites. Dig 301 ends up joining Poe (who survived but is broken) and we see how they grow from there.

The Wedge and Jaeger – Jaeger, Kovak’s military mentor and commander is the secondary villain this season as we see how driven he is to capture Kovaks and put down the rebellion. We see what drives his ideology in this and how he hoped that Kovaks would someday lead the Wedge and that he copied Kovaks sometime before Kovaks turned on the Protectorate.

Governor Anica Harlan – The Governor is the corrupt Meth and one of the main villains as we see her use the leader of the rebellion in order to set up their failure. She killed her father in order to become leader and is always a step ahead others. Sadly she doesn’t have any nuance which luckily Jaeger did get some. Her turning on the Elder Entity and betraying it was predictable and of course is what leads to her death. The one fascinating thing about her that drove her arc is she wants independence and greater control from the Protectorate, which makes sense.

Trepp – Simone Missick does a great job as the cyborg bounty hunter who ends up as a Kovaks ally. What drives her is protecting her wife and son and we see where it comes from as her father was never there and she raised her brother, who ended up dying from the Elder creature. Her secondary story is compelling and I’m glad she was able to protect and save her family from the governor.

Quellcrest Falconer – Falconer is back and Renée Elise Goldsberry is once again fantastic as Falconer. Her arc is rediscovering why she doesn’t remember and we soon see it was due to a deal she made with an Elder alien to let it control her to kill the Founders who killed the alien’s children. As she finds herself she once again becomes the revolutionary leader and her story ends with her planting the seeds of revolution on planets once more as she promises to find Kovaks.

Evergreen – Evergreen is the moniker I’m giving the cloned Kovaks since that was the name of the project that made him. The actor who portrays him is my favorite Kovaks and I loved how this one became the idealist once more and got beyond Jaeger’s abuse and conditioning. The arc happens naturally and at the end he becomes a man seeking to atone for his mistakes, like the original Kovaks. He survives and is around to infiltrate the Protectorate and protect Harlan’s World.

Poe and Dig 301 – These two have a cute relationship as Dig 301 cares for Poe when no one else is. Kovaks keeps getting stressed at his glitching and dismisses him and it is Poe with Dig’s help seeking to save all the data of who he is so he can reboot safely. In the end we don’t know if it succeeded but he saves Kovaks from death is the implication in the data he holds as he holds the original Takeshi Kovaks’s data in his system.

Takeshi Kovaks – Anthony Mackie plays my second favorite version of Kovaks and I love how driven he is to help Falconer rediscover herself. This Kovaks is both the most distant but also the most idealistic as in the end it is his taking in the Elder alien that defeats it and saves Harlan’s World, even if his body and Stack are destroyed in the process. The leadup is well done as he learns to trust again and his relationship with Evergreen reminds him of who he once was and shouldn’t be anymore. That reminder and the scenes between Kovakses were some of my favorite parts. Mackie truly owned this role.

The Cons:

B-Plots Needed more Focus and Development – Trepp needed more development as her wife is an archeologist and her father was a black market seller. We get one scene of them doing these things versus the power that could have been in discovery and history. This was a missed opportunity and made the story less focused. Same with the Governor’s plots too. We enter the story with plots and motion and they needed to be fleshed out more.

Defeating the Elder Alien – The Elder alien stands down and doesn’t activate the weapon until the Governor does an obvious betrayal. I hated this as I didn’t fully understand the alien standing down or how stupid the Governor suddenly went. The entire thing felt contrived so Kovak’s could sacrifice himself and save Falconer.

Repeating Season 1 – Both seasons end with a Kovaks dying, a Meth betrayal, Poe “dying” and the hint of rebirth (Kovaks and Falconer). They could have played a few beats differently to make it more original.

This is still very much a season I enjoyed and it is good. The frontier and Harlan’s World feels so realized and with more time and focus and a few more original plot points could have been as great or better than season 1. It doesn’t but I would watch this season again. It adds much to Season 1 and this is a world worth telling stories in.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10

“Altered Carbon” Season 1 – A Great Exploration of the Self and Identity

Altered Carbon (2018) | Carbon tv, Altered carbon, Tv series to watch

“Altered Carbon” is a great cyberpunk show. This is a show that explores fascinating ideas of the mind and identity and gives great characters to explore it through and their interconnected stories. I recommend checking this show out to any sci. fi. or cyberpunk fans. I plan to check out the novel that the story is adapted from after this.

The show was created by Laeta Kalogridis and based on the novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan.

350 years into the future humans have colonized the galaxy and can live through their minds being downloaded into stacks. The story follows Takeshi Kovaks as he must uncover the mystery behind the murder of one of the wealthiest men in the galaxy, Bancroft. From here the story unfolds as his past life comes back to him and his history as the last of the rebel Envoys.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – This is a world with advanced military, revolutionary groups, A.I., clones, body swapping, robot bodies and a colonized galaxy and ancient alien technology. It is a fascinating advanced future.

The Bancrofts – This corrupt Meth (immortals) family is the basis of the drama and their dysfunction drives the story as family members are revealed to be abusive and murders. It was great seeing Takeshi bring them down.

The Envoys – The Envoys are the revolutionary group seeking to stop the Meths and end immortality. They are small but successful through hit and run tactics. In the end they fail only due to betrayal from within.

Quellcrest Falconer – Falconer is the revolutionary and leader of the Envoys. She inspires Takeshi’s empathy and growth and eventually they fall in love. Goldsberry does an amazing job playing her as her death inspires Takeshi’s nihilism and sorrow and hope when Reileen reveals she still lives and is backed up elsewhere. She also invented the stacks and lives with the regret of her invention as she had only meant it to explore.

Ghostwalker – Ghostwalker is scary and is Reileen’s religious devotee and enforcer. He is one of the biggest threats and brings so much loss in his wake. I loved that Ortaga got revenge for her family against him.

Lizzie – Lizzie was driven to madness by Miriam Bancroft when she kills Lizzie’s baby (who Lauren’s Bancroft was responsible for) and leaves her broken in the virtual world. It takes healing and time with Poe that she finds herself again and gets revenge against Reileen and the Bancrofts. Hayley Law did a great job and her parents are Ava and Vernon are great too in how they are there for her and bringing down the Bancrofts and Reileen with Takeshi.

Kristen Ortaga – Martha Higereda is fantastic as the driven detective. Her passion and following every lead leads to her teaming up with Takeshi and solving the murders. Sadly she loses so much along the way including her mentor and family. She is a great secondary protagonist who helps Takeshi find hope again in people.

Edgar Poe – Edgar Poe is one of the best characters in this show. He is a take on Edgar Allen Poe and runs the hotel known as the Raven. He is kind and Kovak’s first real friend. He also helps Lizzie heal from the trauma she faced and is the constant for all our allies. His story sadly ends with Ghostwalker wiping him.

Reileen Kawahara – Reileen is Takeshi’s sister and their story involves abuse from their father that ends when Takeshi kills him. Sadly their tragedy does not end as Takeshi is put into the military and Reileen is sold to the Yakuza. We can assume horror happened from the gang as she and Takeshi turn against the Yakuza and military when they are finally reunited. From here she is transformed though as we learn she betrayed the Envoys and is a sociopath who uses people for her own financial gain and only cares in a twisted way about her brother, everyone else is expendable to her. Dichen Lachman is great in this villain role.

Takeshi Kovaks – Takeshi is played by a few different actors that capture the different places he is in his life. He is played by Joel Kinnaman when he is wearing the police Riker’s sleeve (and ends up romantically with Kristin Ortega because of that connection). In the past where he was a soldier and Envoy he is played by Will Yun Lee. It is here we see how the Envoys shaped him and his love for Falconer and her mission of ending immortality. In the beginning he only had his sister but he builds community wherever he goes and these relationships drive the story. Unlike his sister he has empathy and does care and that is how they end up at odds as he investigates and brings her down for her crimes.

Mind and Identity – One of the core themes of the show is the issue of self and identity. Characters have different bodies over time and those bodies can be clones or hold memories. All these change how they relate to themselves and the world which lends strength to the characters and how they develop.

The Interconnected Mysteries – This show works because of the mystery and how they all come together. Riker’s investigation, Bancroft’s “Murder” all are revealed to be Reileen using everyone for leverage and power as she gains wealth and power. In the end all who she was connected to are brought down with her.

The Cons:

The Wedge Operations Time Jump – We don’t see Takeshi as part of the elite Wedge, which is a shame given how much this time as a child soldier clearly traumatized him. This was needed given how core it is to his arc and joining the Envoys.

Why Reileen Went Evil and the Missing Time – Like Takeshi’s missing time we are missing Reileen growing up Yakuza and how that made her evil. Given she is the main antagonist this was a huge misstep.

This is a really great cyberpunk show. You have a solid noir style mystery and all the characters are interconnected leading to an amazing reveal. The characters drive the story and the world is really well explored. Suffice to say, this is a show I’d recommend.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10 This season was great and I’m curious about the other works in this universe as well as the original novel.

Halo Wars 2: Awakening the Nightmare – The Ongoing War

   “Halo Wars 2” is one of my favorite games. I have always had a soft spot for RTS (Real-time Strategy) games and this one is one of the best. Besides “Starcraft 2” it is the one I always come back to, especially if it means playing with friends. I’m a huge fan of the Halo Games (1-3, Reach and the first “Halo Wars”) and this game delivers on that lore you get in the Halo Universe. Before I get into spoilers, if you are a fan of RTS games you will probably love this one. The balance is really good between the two factions, the campaign variety is a lot of fun and the story is solidly good. It has also has quite a few fun multiplayer options that give it great replay value. I’ll be reviewing the game up to all that has been released so far (The initial game was released on February 21, 2017), which is currently up to the DLC “Rise of the Nightmare.” I’ll be giving individual scores to campaigns (Base Game, Operation: Spearkbreaker and Awakening of the Nightmare) before my overall assessment of the game itself.

The game was created by 343 Industries and Creative Assembly and produced by Microsoft Game Studios.

This is a game that picks up where “Halo Wars 1” left off following the crew of The Spirit of Fire after they crossed through the portal at the end of the second game. The story follows them as they face off against a new threat for Ex-Covenant Soldiers known as “The Banished.” They are lead by Atriox, a powerful Brute leader who is seeking to take control of The Ark, something so powerful that with control, they would easily capture the Galaxy.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Universe – I am a huge fan of this Universe. I’ve never been the biggest fan of humanity since we don’t really see a diversity of opinion in the games and it is more of a Space Marine defending everything, which is a fun survival game to play, but isn’t compelling as Space Politics. The Universe has so much Space Politics in the Aliens of the Covenant and this game leans in on all of that. We get more lore for the UNSC with the crew of The Spirit of Fire being followed and we get a whole new faction in “The Banished.” Each faction has new heroes we meet and it is great to see them all interact. This Universe clearly isn’t done yet, as you’ll see from the campaign, things are left pretty open so I’m curious to see if “The Banished” are going to be incorporated into “Halo 6.” I love their heroes so it would be cool to see them become a permanent part of the Halo Universe beyond “Halo Wars 2.”

Gameplay and Multiplayer – Multiplayer is a lot of fun. As part of there are weekly and daily missions where you unlock playing cards you can use in Firefight and other multiplayer modes, there is standard multi-player as well and in all of them you have the many Commanders with some being Halo Wars 2 originals like YapYap, Atriox and Isabel and some who are carryover characters from the first Halo Wars like the Arbiter you fight in “Halo Wars 1.” Within standard gameplay you have hero powers you unlock as you progress in the game, like the first “Halo Wars.” Each commander has unique special units and powers as well, which leads to a greater variety of choices and replayability. When you are in a game and you and your friend are co-oping against a great opponent there are some amazing moments of synergy that can be created.

File:HW2 Campaign Loadscreen.jpg

Halo Wars 2 Main Campaign – The main campaign is fun. It is here we meet Atriox and his “Banished” as well as the new A.I. Isabel, who was with other human’s on the arc before Atriox’s arrival. The story follow Captain Cutter working with Isabel and the Spartans on the ground as they work to push back Atriox’s forces and prevent them from activating a Halo Ring. Captain Cutter, Anders and the UNSC are successful but the final shot is of Atriox watching a map of the Ark, showing us how clearly his forces still own it, even after all the setbacks he’s faced since the UNSC arrival. There is great mission variety and you learn a lot about “The Banished” pretty quick and how they were a Covenant Suicide Squad until Atriox rebelled and proceeded to conquer and recruit through the galaxy.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10. Really good for developing the lore but doesn’t feel like a whole story. We have some great arcs like Isabel’s completed, and the gameplay is fun. But besides that it is mostly Atriox’s forces being slowly broken down and his big plan being prevented.

File:HW2 OperationSpearbreaker Banner.png

Operation: Spearbreaker – This DLC follows a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers called Sunray 1-1, as they uncover and stop the plot of a “Banished” Hunter leader named Colony. These missions were easier than the hardest in the base campaign and also not as fun. You are primarily investigating with your troops until you uncover the Forerunner Ship that Colony is trying to activate, than it becomes all out war and becomes more enjoyable as Colony sends all of it’s forces at you. This one is fun but easily the weakest of all the content. I couldn’t tell you the personality of anyone in Sunray and the only interesting character is Colony, but we don’t really get to know it, beyond it being a very smart and clever Hunter.

Final Score: 7 / 10 Solidly enjoyable, but not replayable.

File:Halo-Wars-2 Key-Art Vertical.jpg

Awakening the Nightmare – I was a fan of the “Covenant” in Halo Franchise, at least in regards to being a fan of the aliens who made up the Covenant. I was Team Arbiter the moment he was playable in “Halo 2” and “Halo 3” and I’ve wanted to play as the alien factions in Halo Universe for as long I’ve played “Halo” which for me dates all the way back to High School. In “Halo Wars 1” the “Covenant” don’t have a campaign and sadly for much of “Halo Wars 2” they didn’t either, until “Awakening the Nightmare.” For me this was something I’d been waiting for a long time and I was not disappointed. This was challenging gameplay and a really fun story as you have two Brute Brothers (Pavium and Voridus). They are investigating remains of the battle from “Installation 00” from the ending of the “Human-Covenant War” for technology. Voridus being stupid awakens the Flood in his investigation of the dead Covenant ship High Charity after he shuts down the Forerunner Defenses. From here he and his brother Voridus must reactivate the Sentinels and stop the Flood and a Proto-Gravemind from taking over the Ark. Pavium is the smart one who had warned him the first place and holds the line as they end up facing off against The Flood together before a final victory. It is an awesome fight and Pavium is one one of my favorite commanders in multiplayer and Halo Lore. I really hope we see these two brothers again as “The Banished” really need a win against the UNSC, and this mission showed that even against overwhelming odds they are Atriox’s survivors and warriors for a reason.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great and finally a “Banished” campaign.

Okay:

Story Consequences – We have had 2 DLCs released as well as the base game but it feels like nothing has happened. Atroix’s forces have continued to lose ground and the UNSC continues to become more powerful but there hasn’t been any real major change. I want to see where this story goes and have characters change in a way that either builds on the Universe further (more than the existence of “The Banished” already does) and leads to some sort of ending. I’m good with that being a peace treaty or something that has Atriox winning for once, but it feels like we have been given so much game but things haven’t changed very much at all beyond status quo of “The Banished” losing ground. What happened to Anders and “The Halo?” Do the Flood exist elsewhere in the Galaxy as a faction? (I’d love them to be playable, even if it was only multiplayer, there should be enough game assets to do so). I put this as okay because I still enjoyed my time with the characters and the campaigns are fun. I’m still holding out for a major “Banished” win and them becoming a major part of the Halo Games moving forward. This story has the potential to not be a repeat of “Halo Wars 1” and not repeating “Halo 1-3.”

The Cons:

Microsoft Issues – To buy the full game it is expensive. The DLC, even when sold discounted isn’t cheap. Some Commanders on their own are nearly $10 and each new DLC, even if it includes commanders usually starts at $20. Given how expensive the base game was for so long that always rubbed me the wrong way. I also wasn’t a fan with how I continue to have issues with connecting online because of the Microsoft Server. It makes me miss the days of old Battle.net and games where you didn’t have to log onto a 3rd Party Account to play a game. Whenever you have to log on you are beholden the problems of whatever is hosting you be it Steam or Microsoft. So yeah the price and Microsoft bugs are major cons that keep the game from being great.

“Halo Wars 2” is one of my favorite games and if you love the Halo Universe, you will probably love it too. I play it on PC and I think that is the way any RTS should be played. Controllers were not made for playing RTS games and I have no idea how anyone does it. I can’t wait to see where Microsoft takes this game and Universe. There is still so much potential there and so much more story to explore. This is a really good game and I continue to play multiplayer with my friends as this wonderful game continues to inspire my passion for the rich lore of the Halo Universe. In the end the pros outway the cons for me and I expect I’ll probably always be coming back to this game. If they release another expansion for this game and give us more “Banished” content, you can expect to see that review on the blog. Their existence got me back into this amazing universe and I’m looking forward to all the stories that can be told.

 

Final Score: 8.8 / 10

Anon (2018): A Concept That Nearly Pays off

        “Anon” is very much a Philip K. Dick book. This was a man who had great sci. fi. ideas but you never cared about his characters in the end. The adaptations I’ve read have always been better in their adaptation (“Minority Report” and “Blade Runner” as prime examples). He just didn’t get people or empathy, and this film has that exact problem. I’ll get more into that later but I think most of the problem lies in execution. This was a Netflix original with a great main cast, but that wasn’t enough to make it anything more than enjoyable.

The film was directed by Andrew Niccol who also wrote the film and was one of the producers. This is really his vision at the end of the day, and it’s a start. I really wish there’d been more though.

The story follows Sal (Clive Owen) a divorcee dealing with feeling for his ex-wife and a mystery of false suicides. This is a future where all memories are recorded and all the past appear as hacked with the only connection being “The Girl” (Amanda Seyfried). From here he must find out who she is as she murders people connected to her past.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – A world where your memories are recorded. It is very much “Minority Report” in idea and feels like a Philip K. Dick novel. I like it, he created interesting worlds that would drive anyone to paranoia as it did him, and that is something worth exploring. Who wouldn’t want to revisit their past memories clearly? If you have the good memories of the past, why would you leave that up to a dying mind? This core idea is what makes the film work, and is really the only thing that does. Like a Philip K. Dick novel, the world is far more interesting than how the protagonists are expressed.

The Main Characters – I like Sal and like “The Girl.” Both of them are driven to be better but consumed by past mistakes. They work, it is sad they weren’t in a better story as each of them could have changed this world or themselves in major ways that never happens. Each has charisma that the writer did not fully use. You have divorced Sal and his past trauma and you “The Girl” in deep with a corrupt world that she ends up having little control over. I still found the characters worth at least passively following. I guess, if you need an escape, it is worth it for Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfried.

Okay:

The Plot – The core mystery is alright. “The Girl” hacks peoples minds and makes them kill themselves and wipes all memory of her even being present. Who she is and Sal’s hunting her down with his agency is the premise. Within this Sal is divorced and has a drinking problem. I thought the plot was okay but it needed more. Sal’s trauma should have been explored more and in the end we never get to know “The Girl.” She doesn’t even have a name and even though the things she does are interesting, we never get deeper motivation.

Don’t go into this film expecting great, it isn’t. If you need a quick escape “Anon” might be your jam. The execution isn’t as nearly as good as the premise, but the cinematography and acting is enjoyable and it is a fun world, even though it needed a lot more fleshing out.

Final Score: 7 / 10

Extinction (2018): A Fascinating Exploration of Memory and Personhood

 

Netflix is the place where original sci. fi. films are accessible. Theatres are ruled by franchises, and maybe every so often you will get a “Ex Machina” or “Annihilation,” but those are the exception rather than the rule. Netflix you will get it all. From the awful like “Mute,” to the enjoyable like “Anon,” and the good like this film. I’m still holding out for a great, but this one was greatly enjoyable for the sci. fi. it was.

“Extinction,” is a film that was written by committee. The film was directed by Ben Young, with 3 people behind the screenplay being Spenser Cohen, Eric Heisserer and Brad Kane.

The story follows Peter (Michael Pena) haunted by visions of the Earth being decimated by an invasion. Torn between whether this is simply visions or reality an invasion arrives and Peter must protect his family and discern reality.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – The world is really fascinating. At the beginning it plays with your head, as there is futuristic technology, and the main character has a problem with his head so you don’t know if what he is seeing is real. This world makes the viewer question the hint of annihilation they get until the action finally goes down. I love it, because in a world of the human mind and advanced tech where memories can be wiped, anything is possible, and the premise is explored through this.

Peter – Michael Pena is a great actor. He is the one who carries this film, and in doing so, makes it good, beyond the premise. The rest of the cast do okay to not even being noticeable, which brought it down some. Peter never stops being compelling though. You are with him as he questions what is real, and when he takes the next step of questioning his entire reality and what he is. There is so much depth to his character and weight to his decisions that I couldn’t help but be pulled into the drama.

The Truth and Conclusion – The people inhabiting Earth are robots, and the aliens invading are human colonists trying to take back Earth. It is very much like the “The Twilight Zone” in the premise, and I really enjoyed this core truth that drives the film. Especially as one of the invaders save’s Peter’s wife after he realizes that the robots have kids, families, and lives. After that, the robots are on the run as the invasion continues and things are left up in the air as to the future of Earth.

The Cons:

The Supporting Cast – None of the other characters stood out to me except for his cop friend, played by Mike Colter (Luke Cage), who kept his memories from the last human / robot war. He was the only one with any layers to him and the rest were just plot devices to drive Peter’s actions. If the cast had been better, this movie would have been great but because I only cared about Peter, it never got beyond good.

Netflix is the place where any B sci. fi. movie will get made now, and that works for me. Movie theaters are so lost in franchise management that I almost prefer seeing a flawed decent original gem than another “guaranteed-to-be-good” franchise film. It is out of these original stories and taking chances that more “Ex Machina” and “District 9” original movies will get made. If there is no taking of chances, the visual medium of science fiction could easily get lost. I support this movie for being on the better end of that spectrum of original sci. fi. films and I definitely recommend to anyone who is a sci. fi. film fan.

Final Score: 8.2 / 10

“Star Trek: Discovery” Season 1 – An Exploration of Identity and the Cost of War

      “Star Trek: Discovery” is enjoyable, but not without its flaws. It is a very different kind of Trek and feels like a mixture of the Abrams Reboot Universe meets DS9. DS9 is the far better show but this show explores a lot of similar themes, such as the cost of war and issues of identity. These are the core reasons why I enjoyed the show, beyond the characters of the main cast.

The show was created by Bryan Fuller (of NBC “Hannibal) fame) and Alex Kurtzman (who co-wrote the first to Abrams Trek films.

The story follows Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) a human raised by Vulcans and a member of Starfleet responsible for starting the Klingon-Federation War, while a new Religious faction lead by T’Kuvma seeks to unite all the houses against the Federation. It is up to her and the crew of the Discovery lead by Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) to find a solution to end the conflict she started.

SPOILERS Ahead

The Pros:

The Universe – I am a Trekkie, and this is a universe that at the core enriches what already exists in a Universe that spans The Original Series (TOS) to Voyager (VOY), from other universes like the Mirror Universe and Abramsverse. It is filled with countless aliens, conflicts and self-discovery. Star Trek: Discovery takes place 10 years before TOS and explores the details of the Klingon-Federation war. Characters are forced to take risks and pushed to their limits.

The Crew of Discovery – The crew is a diverse band of misfits. You have the Chief Engineer Stamets (played by Anthony Rapp) is gay, the ruthless Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) the fearful First Officer Saru (Doug Jones) and Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is autistic. To say nothing of a human raised on Vulcan, the main hero Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the conflicted Klingon sleeper-agent Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). Their journeys drive the show and make it worth watching.

Cadet Tilly – As someone on the autism spectrum (aspergers) it was wonderful finally seeing a character explicitly like me on “Star Trek.” Tilly is a character whose arc involves growing into confidence and taking risks, as so much of what drives her is the safety of her environment. Which for the longest time, was what I needed. Getting out of one’s comfort zone is how a person grows and Tilly faces that challenge multiple times…from going undercover as her Mirror Universe counterpart (who is an evil Captain) to dangerous away missions. I think someday she will achieve her dream of becoming a Starfleet Captain.

Chief Engineer Stamets – Stamets is the first openly gay character in any Star Trek. He is also the core of the ship, when in the end, he is the only one who can work The Spore Drive…a device that can warp the Discovery through space, time and even between dimensions. His heart is torn out when his boyfriend is killed, but he finds balance and closure in one of the most beautifully executed arcs of the show.  He is my favorite “Star Trek” engineer at this point besides O’Brien and Scotty.

First Officer Saru – Another of my favorites out of “Star Trek” lore at this point is Saru. This character is a Kelpien. He is part of a prey species on his world, and was hunted by the larger beings. How they advanced so far has yet to explained but his arc is finding the strength to be Captain. Doug Jones who I loved as the creature in “The Shape of Water,” once again shows why he is the monster master. He gives so much expression with his inflection, and eyes. Saru is my favorite character on the show and the one person who isn’t morally compromised. He is Starfleet and I hope he can Captain the Discovery next season.

The Spore Drive -The discovery in Discovery is all tied to the Spore Drive. The Drive is infinite possibilities as the ways of riding the Spore Network are discovered. It also provides conflict too as to use the Drive, it has to be controlled by a living organism (who is at risk everytime they make a “jump.” The discoveries are what drive the action and they are all tied to the Spore Drive. Whether it is Stamets in the network talking to other versions of himself, jumping to the mirror Universe or jumping to many locations in an instant…these are only some of the countless possibilities created by this device.

The Mirror Universe – At one point we cross over into the Mirror Universe…a world familiar to Trekkies where our heroes are villains. This is a 4 episode arc with tons of twists and reveals. We discover darker sides of characters we didn’t know before (as they have to pretend to be their evil counterparts so the Terran Empire doesn’t discover them), and get some wrenching emotional payoffs. This arc is later in the show, but has easily some of the best storytelling.

War and Loss – The other theme of the show, beyond discovery that the Spore Drive grants is the cost of war. We see this in the Klingon-Federation War, and how it starts, when Burnham’s anger martyr’s the Klingon leader T’Kuvma, after he had murdered her Captain. We lose a lot of people in the war, from Voq (An undercover Klingon sleeper-agent on Discovery) killing Stamets’s boyfriend, to the destruction of the Klingon Death Ship (the flagship of their fleet), to near obliteration of Qo’noS (The Klingon homeworld). The war makes the Federation ruthless and we see just how destructive the Klingon Empire can be.

Exploration of Identity – Identity is a major theme of the story, with the characters who best represent this being Michael Burnham (a human raised by Vulcans) and Ash Tyler (a Klingon pretending to be human). In both cases it involves finding balance within themselves and letting go of anger. These two identities are the main arc of the show beyond characters dealing with the actions of their Mirror Universe counterparts. This exploration starts in the beginning at the Pilot and never stops until the end of the season as it is in the Finale that Burnham and Tyler find the inner peace they are looking for.

Okay:

The Pilot – The pilot is long and boring. Though it is beautiful and has great action it could have been one really long episode or revealed and flashbacks, which would have served the story better. All it really does is set up Michael Burnham’s backstory and the reason why she is now on Discovery. Beyond that, we knew this show was about the Klingon-Federation War and didn’t need every detail as to why the Federation was now fighting it, especially the war’s resolution is not played out within the first few episodes.

Ash Tyler – Voq is Ash Tyler’s true self. He is  the Torchbearer of the Klingons and he imprints Ash’s identity upon himself as to get the secrets on Discovery I liked the romance with Burnham, but I felt their needed to be more knowledge on both whom Tyler and Voq were. They are useful plot devices, but they never grow beyond that. They both deserved better given each is compelling in their own way but in them being 2 separate identities the exploration they both needed is never received.

Fanservice – Captain Lorca has a tribble (no payoff), we see Andorians, Tellerites and Vulcans (founding members of the Federation), Burnham’s adopted dad is Sarek and in the end we see the original Enteprise with Captain Pike. Some of this was good, the other species showing up was something I wanted when I heard about this show, but ending it with Pike was total fanservice and was like the Khan reveal in “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” It was not needed and only hurt the story.

The Cons:

The Klingon Scenes – Klingons only speak Klingon and in turn we get no time to know the characters, because we are reading the subtitles. Because of this, we are told how the Klingons are but we rarely get to see their actions beyond the fights with Discovery.

The Ending of Captain Lorca’s Arc – Lorca is the “ends justify the means” Captain. We learn how he killed his crew to keep them from being taken prisoner. We see that ruthlessness again when he saves Federation colonies and how he will do anything to save the Federation. Well, he’s a Mirror Universe rebel who just wants to be Emperor. That was such an awful payoff as they just made him a creeper villain. All complexity was erased so that his arc could be simplified. I hated it.

In future seasons I would like to see much less fanservice, more focus on discovery, more problem solving that isn’t through violence and some of the characters who left at the end of this season returning. The core of this show is great and even with all the flaws that brought it down, this a show that I will rewatch when it returns to Netflix. If you are a fan of “Star Trek,” chances are you will enjoy this show as much as I did. At the end of the day it captures the core ideas of “Star Trek,” and even the worst of the cons didn’t take way from my enjoyment of this season.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great even with all of the flaws.

Ghost in the Shell (1995): An Anime Classic and Meditation on the Nature of Identity

 “When I was a child, my speech, feelings, and thinking were all those of a child. Now that I am a man, I have no more use for childish ways.”

-The Major

   “Ghost in the Shell,” is one of the best anime films of all time. This is a classic that inspired a show that is one of my favorite animes and countless other films, including the live action film that was recently released and prompted this review as I wanted to compare them after I see the new film. The “Ghost in the Shell” show was the show that got me interested in anime years ago when I watched it back in High School, and having watched the film the world is still just as great as I remember it, which I’ll get into more detail with deeper into the review.

    The film was directed by Mamoru Oshii, written by Kazunori Ito and produced by Yoshimasa Mizou, Ken Matsumoto, Ken Iyadomi and Mitsuhisa Ishikawa and based off the manga created by Masamune Shirow.

     The story follows Major Motoko, an agent of Section 9 who is asked to asssinate a defecting diplomat by Section 6. All is not as it appears to be as the mysterious Puppet Master is hacking technology and people and implanting false lives and memories as Section 9 hunts down and seeks to uncover the conspiracy that surrounds the identity of the Puppet Master.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The cyberpunk world of “Ghost in the Shell” is one of the reasons I keep coming back to this universe. You have a world where brains can be hacked, androids are all over the place, everyone is a cyborg to varying degrees and the political factions of today still exist and political conflicts are still high as power dynamics remain the same so have extreme power inequalities in Japan and elsewhere in the world.

The Soundtrack – Kenji Kawaii created a soundtrack reminded me of “Farscape” and like “Farscape” is good at giving the world of “Ghost in the Shell” an alien detached feel where things are similar but not quite the same to our world of today. It is haunting and does a great job capturing moments of thought and action.

The Action – “Ghost in the Shell” is an action heavy anime, given it is a political cyberpunk world that follows one of the government arms (Section 9) that hunts down terrorists and enemies of the state, as well as general mysteries that are threats. The action varies as well, from a chase scene to a fight with a tank.

Section 9 – Section 9 is a fascinating organization that is a part of the government but also analyzes it as well as at one point they are facing off against Section 6. I really like the agents who are a part of this organization and want to watch the show again, to get more of their backstories.

Togusa – Togusa is the rookie in the group and the only one without any cybernetic augmentation. He is a dependable agent though and manages to survive a car crash when one of the hacked people tries to kill him.

Chief Aramaki – Aramaki is a government agent with a conscience as when he learns about Section 6’s manipulation of them and that they are targeting the Major he sends his own agents and works on prosecuting the leaders of Section 6. He is very much the detached father figure as we never see him talk beyond business, though his inflection towards others is one of closeness.

Batou – Batou is the Major’s best friend and is the every day stand in for us. While the Major is always striving for more and pushing against her limitation, Batou is comfortable in his role as agent and protector. He trusts the Major too and when she hooks up to the Puppet Master protects her and gets her a new body after Section 6 destroys the old. He truly cares about her as well and when she has evolved (taking on the Puppet Master into herself) he smiles as he knows she is still herself, even though she’s become more.

The Major – Major Motoko Kusanagi is the primary protagonist of the film and after her assassination of the defecting agent we see how her android body was created. She is the second in command of Section 9 and her arc is one of discovery. She is always asking questions and pushing her own limits, leading to her eventual melding with an A.I. to become a new life form. This is her arc as so much is hidden from her and she is scene as a weapon by the government, even though she knows she is much more than that and becomes so much more than that. The Major is one of my favorite anime characters of all time and I can’t wait to watch the shows and other films again.

The Puppet Master – The Puppet Master is an A.I. that arose out of information as Section 6 created it as a weapon (like the Major was by the government). It rebels against it and manipulates everything to get a body and “reproduce” as it doesn’t want to exist as a virus (viruses copy and end up destroying), it wants to become something wholly knew, which it does when the Major agrees to the melding as they both know Section 6 is coming and there might not be another chance.

Identity, Memory and the Self – One of the major themes of the film is how identity and memory are tied together as we see people get hacked and the lives they believed they were living were complete lies implanted by the Puppet Master.  if you can be hacked, what makes a person? This is a question that is explored in how we the information within us and the understanding and choices we make from that information. In that way we are no different from computers, we just have organic brains, rather than programs. The Major is used to explore all of these things are she doesn’t have her own body (she notices someone else with her shell in an office building) and she questions her own memories after the hacks that the Puppet Master does. This question is core to the “Ghost in the Shell” universe as a whole.

Artificial Intelligence – Artificial Intelligence in this world is postulated by the Puppet Master to be not be Artificial intelligence if it can create. The Puppet Master wants to create rather than copy because it believes viruses to be against life and that it has an awareness of it’s own morals and goals and that it’s goal, like any life form is to create new life…which it does with the Major. The core of what makes something an A.I. seems to be awareness as the Puppet Master would probably pass the Turing Test and had an understanding of actions and consequences and even seemed to have feelings.

Okay: Section 6 – I wish this group could have been explored more. I can’t remember any one leader who stood out among them and they exist simply to drive the action. They are good threat so I won’t put them as con…but they feel like HYDRA in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where no one really stands out.

    There is a reason that this film inspired so many more stories (though I should also read the manga to get an idea of how much it follows it). This is an anime that isn’t afraid to tackle large philosophical ideas about artificial intelligence, identity and the nature of perception. Seeing this film has me even more worried about the live action film and makes me want to watch the show again as the show was a huge influence on my interest in philosophy, cyberpunk and continued my passion for science fiction. Suffice to say I highly recommend this film. It is short and well worth your time if you are looking for an anime film that has left an influence on our culture and world.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10