Friday, August 07, 2015

Fantastic Four

I didn't have any great expectations when I saw a preview showing of Fantastic Four a couple of days ago, so at least I wasn't disappointed. A reboot of the 2005 film, apparently made so that Fox could hang on to the franchise, it makes some radical changes to the origin story of Marvel's first superhero team: Reed Richards, supergenius elastic man; Sue Storm, with the ability to become invisible and generate force fields; Johnny Storm, human torch; Ben Grimm, stone-clad golem. But none of the changes are improvements, and the film fails to weld together three different narrative sections into a coherent whole. It starts with a slice of Spielbergian wonder as schoolboy Reed hooks up with Ben while searching for an essential component for his teleportation device; then jumps forward a few years when Reed is recruited to a hothouse academy and falls for Sue Storm; and finally takes a turn into grimdark territory after the teleporter accesses the weird energies of an alter Earth, and transforms the four heroes and the villain (as in the comics, helpfully called Victor Von Doom).

The major problem is that this version of the Fantastic Four's origin story isn't as much fun as the original, in which Reed developed an interstellar spaceship that ran into trouble as soon as it left Earth, exposing Reed, Ben Grimm (who was piloting it) and Reed's fiance Sue and her brother Johnny to the radiation of the Van Allen belts. The 2005 film was a variation on this - exposure to cosmic radiation on Reed's privately-owned space station. In both, Reed's wealth gave them independence and allowed them to become celebrity heroes: having superpowers could be troublesome (especially for Ben Grimm, with the world's worst skin problem), and the four squabbled and fell out in the way all families do, but on the whole being one of the team was pretty swell.

Not so much in the new version (and here, I guess, mild SPOILERS), where the transformation doesn't happen until more than halfway through the film, and the four nascent superheroes become pawns of the military-industrial complex. Despite the lead actors' best efforts to breathe life into their characters, it's a disjointed mess, focusing on construction of the plot MacGuffin and gloomy moral quandaries at the expense of the bits where the superheroes strut their stuff and the crucial annealing of the four as a team. If only it would put an end to the formulaic origin story - hero gets power, fights villain they've accidentally created, establishes franchise identity - repeated across original film treatments and reboots. But it probably won't even succeed in that.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Comet Dirt

Credits: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS/DLR

It looks, someone responded when I posted the above to Twitter, like my back yard. It's actually the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, taken from a distance of nine metres by the Philae lander, at the very end of its descent after being released by the Rosetta comet chaser. The lander failed to anchor itself and in the comet's feeble gravity bounced off the surface several times, ending up wedged in the shadow of a low cliff. Without enough sunlight falling on its solar panels the little lander went into sleep mode after its battery power ran down, but recently woke again because the intensity of sunlight has increased as the comet makes its closest approach to the sun. A short while ago it transmitted a fat batch of data, just published, including that close-up of its first, very temporary landing site. Which does, yes, look like a patch of garden dirt. Or maybe the hardcore of a building-site car park. Or the surface of Mars, or of the Moon. Which either suggests (if you hate the idea of space exploration) that travel to other planets is a waste of time, or (if, like me, you geek out on planetary science) says something interesting about the universality of dirt. That there are similar geological processes on comets and planets that grind bedrock fine, and with the aid of gravity and wind (or the eruptive jets of comets) distribute the material in a more or less even blanket. That a comet isn't a simple ball of ice, but possesses dirt and boulders, cliffs with mass-wasted talus slopes, and even what look like rippled dunes.

But even outwith the fact that it's part of the rind of a comet, the dirt in the image isn't ordinary dirt, of course. It's mostly water ice. Pebbles and shards and grains of water ice frozen hard as rock, leavened with carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide ices, and tainted with a variety of toxic chemicals - hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, sulphur dioxide, carbon disulphide, formaldehyde, methyl isocyanate, acetone, propionaldehyde, acetamide . . . 'If you could smell the comet, you would probably wish that you hadn't,' as one of the Rosetta team wrote in the project's blog. But in that poisonous cocktail are compounds that probably played key roles in Earth's ancient prebiotic chemistry. You couldn't grow flowers in comet dirt (although if you were one of the Quiet War's Outers, you might seed a comet like this with vacuum organisms that would mine useful organics), yet it contains the stuff of life: stuff that may have seeded the Earth with necessary precursors. That patch of comet dirt is a reminder of where we came from.
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