Too Many Mutants
“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” IS THE ninth film in the X-Men film series. If you’ve seen the previous eight films, you know what you’re in for before you even enter the movie theater. There’s a good chance you’ve made up your mind whether you’ll like the film before you’ve even seen it. If there weren’t a lot of X-Men fans, these films wouldn’t continue to get made and wouldn’t make as much box-office as they do. As I write this review, “X-Men: Apocalypse” has already more than tripled its $200 million budget at the box office. It’s a successful film monetarily, no matter what the critics say. Despite the fact that the film has been mostly panned by critics, people are flocking to see it. A new X-Men film isn’t a movie—it’s an event, it’s a happening.
I wanted to like this film. I’ve mostly enjoyed Marvel films. I admittedly came late to the party: “Deadpool” was the first X-Men genre film I saw. Not an X-Men film per se, I thought “Deadpool” was entertaining, so I resolved to alleviate my X-Men flick deficiency by binge-watching all the previous films. Perhaps this wasn’t a good idea. By the end of “Days of Future Past” I had surpassed my mutant threshold. I had ingested too much mutant material too quickly. I had become jaded regarding the franchise.
To be honest, it was not my intent to review this film. My first choice this month was “Approaching the Unknown.” It’s a good idea to support genre films like “Approaching the Unknown”—films that aren’t the latest addition to a blockbuster franchise and haven’t got a comic book or video game tie-in. Alas, I should have known there was no way to escape my inevitable fate. As it turned out, “Approaching the Unknown” had a limited release. Unless you’re in Los Angeles or New York City, you wouldn’t be able to see it. So “X-Men: Apocalypse” was the next logical choice. It was destiny.
I went into the theater with high hopes. At first, everything was fine and dandy. The spectacle of Ancient Egypt was cool. The idea of waking up a primeval super-powerful ancient mutant—the first mutant, the granddaddy of all mutants—seemed a good one. The filmmakers working on the X-Men franchise have a wonderful collection of already thought-out heroes and villains to work with from the many years of the Marvel comic books. En Sabah Nur—better known as Apocalypse—first appeared in a comic book in the summer of 1986. There’s a considerable amount of gravitas that’s effectively transferred to the screen when you have a villain ready-made with backstory. That’s what makes the first half of the film powerful—as long as the movie has Apocalypse on the screen, it’s immersing.
The film uses a cheesy time-tunnel effect to indicate that we’ve moved forward in time from Ancient Egypt to the present day. It’s yet another fancy gimmick in a film loaded with fancy gimmicks. After having been entombed for five thousand years, that En Sabah Nur could come up to speed with the modern world and learn English by mind-melding with a TV set was a nice touch.
Unfortunately, after the action leaves Ancient Egypt there’s a passel of mutants running around in many different places that all have to make an appearance. The film suffers from trying to be in too many places and from having to include too many mutants. Every mutant who has appeared in the previous films has to be accounted for, lest the film leave out someone’s favorite X-Man. We’re in Ancient Egypt one minute, rural Poland the next, Auschwitz (many reviewers including myself consider the hasty Auschwitz references gratuitous), Berlin, The School for Gifted Children, Quicksilver’s mom’s basement, government situation rooms, a secret military base for captured mutants, outer space watching the entire planet’s nukes being launched. The hodgepodge of locales becomes dizzying and confusing.
For example, the audience actually broke out in applause when Wolverine appeared! The audience must have been disappointed, though: as soon as Wolverine makes his appearance, he runs into the forest, not to be seen again. It’s as if the moviemakers couldn’t leave him out, but once he was there, they didn’t know what to do with him. They must have realized that they already had too many mutants hanging around and it would be best if he just ran off ASAP.
Missing from this film is the central conflict powering most of the X-Men films: the overarching clash between mutants and regular Homo sapiens. Previously there was Eric “Magneto” Lescher and his allies on one side, representing the “Conflict is Inevitable” camp, versus Professor Charles Xavier and his “Can’t We All Just Get Along” camp on the other. In this film, En Sabah “Apocalypse” Nur manages to recruit a few X-Men on his side and also is able to augment their mutant capabilities. However, the reasoning behind Apocalypse recruiting the mutants remains unclear (they’re outcasts, but aren’t all mutants outcasts?), as does his motivation.
There’s some blather by Apocalypse to the effect that he appears when civilization has become corrupt and needs to be obliterated instead of reformed. This intriguing idea isn’t fleshed out, however. More could have been done with it. Somewhere in my subconscious there’s a small voice wishing that Apocalypse actually wins and clobbers the X-Men along with the rest of the planet. This is, perhaps, more appealing to audiences than is admitted, and even fuels the narrative tension in this film.
To be blunt, all the whining from the critics regarding
To attempt to critique it is like being a music critic at Woodstock. It’s less a film than the summer’s event. You go, you pay your money, you watch it, and you pretend to have a good time. Resistance is futile! (“X-Men: Apocalypse,” directed by Bryan Singer, Marvel Entertainment) —Joshua Berlow
Trusting Your Enemies
“SELLING LIKE HOTCAKES on a cold Chicago morning,” someone tweeted. I took the bait. What was so hot that day in May? Debut novels from Urbane Publications, namely “Skyjacked” by Shirley Golden, a factory worker who became a psychologist and an award-winning short-story writer.
Okay. Golden passed muster with a publisher dedicated to “finding new voices, defining new genres” with “hip, contemporary, groundbreaking fiction and non-fiction designed to entertain, excite, and engage”—but would she pass the ultimate test, a nod or a favorable review from the “Perihelion” Book Critic?
The year is 2154, and Corvus Ranger, captain of the Soliton, uses his starship to ferry questionable cargo around the galaxy, no questions asked. Hey, he’s always strapped for cash, but enterprising and resourceful. On a hasty penal run to Jupiter’s prison moon, Europa, Corvus is confident he can make this routine drop, then hurry home to Earth in time for his son’s birthday—yeah, the son whose birth he missed out on while making one of those space runs, and the boy’s mom just won’t let him forget it, but Corvus is known for delivering the goods, not keeping promises to loved ones. For once, he’ll have a good excuse, but it doesn’t look like he’ll ever get to deliver it: a motley crew of escaped convicts hijacks his ship and forces him on a journey through the galaxy.
Danger looms at every stop. Betrayals, disasters, second chances, risking one’s life for an adversary, forging unexpected alliances—and not too much of the obligatory space battle with aliens—make this more than just an entertaining romp through the stars.
We feel Corvus’ pain when his world is upended. “The ship was his haven; a place where paying passengers came aboard only on his say-so. He could see no way out, no way of regaining control. The prison run had turned his haven into an entombment.”
Even worse, “He’d not get back for his boy’s birthday ... that much was sure, and perhaps not ever ... His son had lost a father and would never know the true reason why.”
Once I got past the unorthodox lack of commas and assorted typos, I came to love a certain “Wizard of Oz” vibe, and the dialogue. Corvus is on the adventure of a lifetime but he just wants to go home. He’s kind of a jerk, but he’s a good guy overall, and he takes great pride in his ship. I love the way he modifies it on the cheap, not knowing for sure if the upgrades will work as promised—a teleporter, for one. “I’ve never tested it,” he explains when the hijackers could really use this sort of tech right about now—“Hey, no need to look like that; can I help it that it’s my most recent modification? Chap who installed it, swore it was good to go.”
Spoiler alert: nobody is injured by the teleporter. Let us pass over in silence some of the other tricks Corvus has up his sleeve. “There are enough dangers out here without worrying what’s inside the ship,” is an idea that gets reinforced as trust is earned, then betrayed, time and again.
All the skyjackers get their own point of view in alternating chapters. Bryce is the translator for Josh, a mute boy who’d been kidnapped for his ability to “read” people, then dumped on the prison moon for failing to come through for his captors. Janelle is stuck with husband Warren, who worked for a dreaded entity known as “the Core.” Shai is an Aspie-like pilot who refers to herself in the third person. Isidore is the ringleader who sends Corvus twenty light years away toward the constellation of Libra.
But she won’t tell him why. “It was one thing to be snatched from his home,” Corvus thinks, but harder “to feel that everything was beyond your control and that you weren’t trusted enough to be told the truth.”
Trudi, his girlfriend and mother of their son, has never put much faith in Corvus, so why should Isidore, the skyjacker? “You always bury your head in the sand,” Trudi would say. “Never face up to what is really going on around you.”
Isidore stings him with the same kind of assessments, e.g., “You give away nothing, act as if nothing is important or just one big joke when it’s all bottled up and then, bang, you explode.”
Corvus delivers a classic retort: “Since the day you skyjacked my ship and ripped me away from my world, yeah, now you mention it, it’s been kinda brewing.”
The dynamics, the tenuous relationships between these characters, unfold with fascinating authenticity.
Corvus tells Isidore. “I feel as if I’m stumbling around in the dark without a light or any sign that daybreak will ever come again. If it’s not too much to ask, just tell me what’s going on here.”
She refuses. “I don’t plan to explain it to you. You would have to see it or experience it for yourself in order to believe it—that’s the sort of person I think you are. You wouldn’t believe it and then you’d amuse yourself by joking about it.”
That sounds like the Corvus we know and love.
Isidore’s destination is Gliese 581d, the mythical planet full of “super-evolved people” that, she informs Corvus, isn’t mythical after all.
Other adventures and mishaps follow.
“I’ve seen things in the past few months, things I wouldn’t have believed ... things I don’t want to believe. Things that make me scared to be human—or any other race,” Corvus says.
The dialogue is snappy and authentic. For instance: “I’m just saying what no one else is prepared to say ... That doesn’t make you brave, it just makes you mean.”
In stories where strangers and enemies are forced to team up and trust each other, it’s a sure bet that just when friendships are forged, someone’s gonna die. I was furious with Rhett Bruno and Elena Giorgi for the deaths of certain characters I love, but here, Shirley Golden pulls it off—yes, it hurts, but not to the point that I am filled with rage for having come to care about someone who gets bumped off.
On the bright side, no post-apocalyptic dystopian regime stands in the hero’s way, just that oldest of adversaries, time. Better yet, the ending is one of the most surprising and gratifying I’ve ever seen. It makes up for any typos, formatting glitches, or poignant sacrifices of characters I’d come to know and love.
Women who write science fiction are rare birds. Women who win awards for it are even more unusual. The Telegraph’s “Best Sci-fi and Fantasy Novels of All Time” includes a whopping nine percent written by females. Not that I pay attention to statistics, but Shirley Golden blogged about it. (Hey, I do my research before trusting a publisher who’s hawking the latest debut novel.)
Golden’s love of science fiction “began with TV shows such as Blake’s 7 and V,” she blogs and “is rooted in the desire to indulge in an escape from reality ... I hope my book will appeal to readers of both sexes, who enjoy colourful characters in a fast-paced, action-packed, adventure story, whose main aim is entertainment.” Mission accomplished. (“Skyjacked,” Shirley Golden, Urbane Publications Limited) —Carol Kean
In the Path of a Hurricane ...
A SCIENCE EXPERIMENT GONE WRONG unleashes a genetic Pandora’s Box in “Stormbreak (The Serenity Strain Book 1)” by Chris Pourteau. Hoping to heal violent prisoners and make them more docile, a professor engineers the Serenity Virus. He inadvertently creates six super-psychopaths instead. Snappy dialogue, vivid characters, and taut prose keep the pace fast and furious.
In “Stormbreak,” three apocalyptic hurricanes ravage the Earth. A nympho villainess known as Id lures the mutant felons to her new stronghold in Texas, where they gain followers, escalate the carnage, and celebrate their psychopathy with public displays of carnal glee. Is anything sane and human left? Yes. Her name is Lauryn. A cold, sober corrections official, she’s forced to team up with her cheating husband, their teen daughter, and the family dog while searching for survivors in the aftermath of the hurricanes.
At this point in almost every apocalyptic novel, I marvel at how people risk life and limb to get to a ruined town in hopes of finding Mom still alive. Don’t do it! Don’t go there! But they never listen, and bad things always come of it.
That’s one reason I rarely spend much time summarizing plots. The other is that I’m accused of too many spoilers, no matter how many details and events I’m leaving out. That said, of course I’ll warn readers that someone is gonna die. You know this. I know you know this! Doesn’t anyone else get angry at authors who coerce you into entering the world that hatched inside their heads, get us to care about these imaginary friends of his, only to bump off some of them?
Fists of rage shaking at Chris Pourteau, I will pass over in silence the carnage and the body count, and focus on the part that hooked me in the first place: the science.
The Serenity Virus itself doesn’t exist, Pourteau informs us in the Afterword, but most of the genetic stuff Dr. Eamon Stavros tinkers with is scary-real. With Stavros and his creator, Pourteau, I believe “the promise for science eradicating illness and behavioral issues from humanity has never been greater than it is today,” but it’s a long, dark road to the cure. It’s one thing to discover our genetic impulse control center, as French and Finnish researchers have with the HTR2B gene, not to mention the Chinese, MAGE, or MIT-developed “multiplex automated genome engineering” technology used for cutting and pasting genetic sequences. It’s another thing to try controlling that biological control center.
Pourteau makes good use of a classic theme in science fiction—“the danger from tinkering with the inner workings of the body’s clock, the most miraculous (and delicately balanced) of machines ever created.” He also pulls us, far too deftly for my comfort, into the horror of being a human in the path of a hurricane.
“Ah, for the days when our greatest worries were simpler,” he quips in that Afterword, “less about a genetic genie escaping a laboratory bottle and more about how best we could avoid Mother Nature’s wrath. Maybe, when you think about it, hurricanes aren’t so bad after all.”
Oh, yes they are. At least in this story, they’re as bad as Peter Marsten, the ringleader of the prisoners infected with the failed Serenity Strain.
Stunned civilians stumble out of their homes, pillage the remnants of gas stations and WalMarts, and hide from, fight, or join the marauding “Serenity Strain” felons. Lauryn is tough enough to battle the felons who were once under her charge, but now they have a queen who blew in with the storms, a powerful temptress known as Id. (“Stormbreak: The Serenity Strain, Book 1,” Chris Pourteau, Hip Phoenix Publishing) —Carol Kean
... A New Threat Emerges
IT TAKES MORE THAN ONE battle to win a war, though, and “Ironheart (The Serenity Strain Book 2),” by Chris Pourteau, brings us to the next stage. “Ironheart,” continues the theme of ordinary people becoming heroes, even the pompous Herr Professor Stavros. Colt is a mysterious newcomer foreseen by the suddenly intuitive, mysterious teen daughter, Megan. While the sleazy Id and Marsten’s army of escaped prisoners move south to enslave the Bayou City, a new threat comes from another corner of the multiverse. Id speaks ominously (well, for her, it’s gleefully) of “He Who Is Yet to Come,” but by the end of Book 2, we’re left shaking our fists at Pourteau and demanding that “He” will hurry it up in Book 3.
Much as Id grates on me—a tribute to the author, one must concede—I have to say no antihero is more authentic and annoying than Eamon Stavros, who is quickly humbled in Book 1. I can’t help but love his passion for science, his ability to say “I was wrong.” Maybe in Book 3, he’ll figure out what turned his test subjects into even more dangerous, homicidal, psychopathic human beings. Meanwhile, he still talks too much and still irks Lauryn in Book 2. I have great hopes for him. Anyone that annoying is certain to become endearing, eventually. (At least, that’s how it works in fiction; sadly, in real life, it generally takes years, if not whole lifetimes, to learn to love certain neighbors, co-workers or family members.)
Have I failed to convey the horror of not one, but three, massive hurricanes ravaging the planet? Pourteau, a lifelong resident of the Texas Gulf Coast, recreates the dry, lifeless tone of an automated announcer warning terrified listeners of the impending disaster. “Can you imagine hearing that come over your radio before the bad weather hit?” he writes (again with the Afterword to Book One; bear with me). “Sometimes, life hands us events far more horrific than anything the most creative of fiction writers could ever come up with.”
Hence the old saw, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”
In all, this series is a thorough mixing of hard science fiction and a bit of fantasy. At the root is genetic mutation, which has always been hard science fiction fodder, and the too believable aftermath of three major hurricanes. Megan’s mysticism may not be typical of our favorite genre, but Colt fits right in, regardless of where he really came from. (Yes, I know, it’ll come out in Book 3. Or else. You listening, Pourteau?)
Even if “Ironheart” reminds you of Stephen King’s “The Stand,” or Tolkien’s villain in “Lord of the Rings,” Pourteau leaves us no doubt as to his passion for science fiction. Before he worked as a lab technician helping to recover one of Christopher Columbus’ ships, then as a technical writer and editor, Pourteau was a die-hard Star Trek fan. Now he’s co-host of the new “Geeks of a Certain Age (GoaCA)” podcast with Hank Garner. Two buddies in their 40s talk about stuff they’ve loved since they were twelve and spread their passion for All Things Geek. Google it.
Between the podcast and the prose, the complex characters, the intriguing plot, and quiet interludes of introspection in between all the battles, bloodlust and just plain lust, it’s no mystery how a middle-aged geek from Texas got me to read the kind of book I normally avoid. (“Ironheart: The Serenity Strain, Book 2,” Chris Pourteau, Hip Phoenix Publishing) —Carol Kean