Tor.com content by

Dan Persons

A.I. Artificial Intelligence Wanted Us to Cherish Our Humanity Before It Becomes Too Late

I have a fantasy about June 26, 2001. I have a fantasy about a certain person, a die-hard, unapologetic Kubrick acolyte, who has come to witness the debut of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. There she/he sits, in the very first row of the very first screening…but not to watch Spielberg pay homage to friend and mentor Stanley Kubrick, who developed and largely fleshed out the original idea for A.I. (with a significant contribution from Ian Watson) before passing it on to Spielberg in the belief that the director of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial could better navigate the film’s emotional beats. No, this person has come with an expectation, born of a certain over-simplified preconception of Kubrick, of Spielberg.

This person has come to witness his/her worst nightmare come true. [Does the student betray the master? Read on!]

The Last Jedi Tried to Free Star Wars From Its Fixation on Legends

With all respect to Rodgers and Hammerstein, sometimes the ending can also be a very good place to start. So let’s start there, let’s start with the ending: Let’s start with a young stable boy being chastised by his master for regaling his friends with the exploits of Luke Skywalker, complete with hand-made action figures. He emerges from his quarters, uses the Force to grab his broom, and then takes a defiant stance beneath a canopy of stars.

Mind you, this scene comes after Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi has, for all intents and purposes, ended, after the tattered remnants of the resistance have once more escaped the clutches of the First Order and are licking their wounds, and counting what few heads remain. As a curtain call, it’s odd—not so much saying, “Thank you for enjoying our little show” (the kid’s facing away from us, after all), as, “It’s been four decades with the Skywalkers, folks. Can’t you take a hint?” [Should we be looking to the stars, or within ourselves? Read on to find out…]

How the Five Most Important Seconds in Toy Story Changed Animation Forever

It is not hard to hate Sid Phillips, the enfant terrible of Pixar’s groundbreaking 1995 CG animated film, Toy Story. From the toys’ point of view, he is the devil incarnate, an 11-year-old anarchist who never met a plaything he couldn’t burn, explode, or Frankenstein into a bizarre, mutant lifeform. With his braces-clad sneer, his skull-emblazoned T-shirt and his bedroom stocked with ominous Army handbooks, Sid is the polar opposite of childhood innocence, an unholy force of nature who revels in destruction for destruction’s sake. [And yet, he is at the center of one of CG animation’s most significant moments. Read on!]

Logan’s Run: The Film That Killed ’70s SF

I came into my second viewing of Logan’s Run the same way I went into my first: With an open mind and a hopeful heart. This may seem paradoxical, given that my first exposure to the film upon its 1976 opening did not end well—and by “not end well,” I mean me walking past the line waiting to get into the next show and screaming, “YOU’RE WASTING YOUR MONEY!”

Still, I’m not quite the mega-passionate, hot-headed youth I was in my twenties (I’m now a mega-passionate, hot-headed ol’ fart). And the ensuing forty-five years have seen Logan’s Run, if not quite rise to the level of a genre classic, at least accrue enough affection to be regarded as a notable entry in the field. Which raised a concern: I’d originally proposed examining the flaws of Logan’s Run, but with the passage of time, would I see a different film? Honestly, if maturity (such as it is) allowed me to better appreciate what I had denigrated before, I would not have hesitated to contact my editor and say, “I’m sorry, I’ve made a horrible mistake. The premise I pitched to you is completely wrong—let’s just forget the whole thing.”

The fact that you’re reading this article serves as testament that what I felt about the movie then is just as applicable now. Let’s discuss. [Read on, and let me explain myself]

The Greatest Looney Tunes Cartoon Is Not What You Think It Is

Here’s a fun little thing you can try at your next family gathering (sometime in, oh, 2022? ’23?). Get people talking about Looney Tunes. Get ‘em talking about their favorites, about how much they love the meta humor of Duck Amuck, or the sophisticated satire of What’s Opera, Doc?, or the trenchant irony of One Froggy Evening. And when the question comes around to you, you just square your shoulders, look them straight in the eye, and proudly proclaim, “Nothing’s better than The Great Piggy Bank Robbery.

You can then relish the silence, one so profound it would be as if you had just said, “You know, the good thing about hitting yourself in the head with a two-by-four is…” [Why would you risk life and limb to make such a foolhearty assertion? Read on!]

Ten Zombie Comedies That Won’t Rot Your Braaaaaaaains

And this is the way it could all end: With humanity confronting an implacable force, virulent beyond any imagination. We cower and cling to the tenuous security of our homes, helplessly watching as friends and loved-ones succumb. The government, ill-equipped to cope with the challenge, eventually flounders and fails, and social norms collapse, surrendering civilization into the hands of the brutish and ignorant.

But enough about 2020. Let’s talk zombies!

[Read on to find out how to greet the coming apocalypse with a smile!]

Twelve Animated Series Worth Marathoning

Welcome to Time Enough at Last: The Home Edition, when we all discover what our true heart’s desire is when we’re stuck with nothing much else to do. Surprise, surprise, it turns out that not many of us are eager to be alphabetizing our book collections, dusting the upper shelves, or cleaning out the back of the fridge like we promised three months ago (sorry, B).

In my case, top priority has been given to the arduous task of sitting around and watching cartoons. And yes, while that can be as infantile as it sounds—as the bowl of Cap’n Crunch next to me attests—it’s also a fact that animated series, even the ones purportedly aimed at kids, have grown more nuanced and sophisticated since the days of Yogi Bear, Transformers, and Smurfs (or whatever you gazed goggle-eyed at from the living room carpet when you were a kid). And adult stuff? No surprise, everything’s on the table there (sometimes literally).

[Read more]

Ten Scientastic Episodes of The Venture Bros.

In a year of seemingly infinite suck, the cancellation of The Venture Bros. may not represent the most devastating thing to be sacrificed to 2020’s ravenous maw. For avid fans, though—myself included—the news still stung. Over seven seasons and sixteen years (or seventeen, if you want to include the 2003 pilot, which aired a year and a half before the first season began), we’ve watched the show go from a simple, adult-themed parody á la Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law to something richer, more complex, and—oh man, I can’t believe I’m saying this about a series that featured an iron-jawed villain named Baron Ünderbheit—surprisingly moving. We’d endured extended interregnums as Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick (né Christopher McCulloch), the show’s creators (and pretty much sole writers, as well as making up a fair chunk of its voice cast and post-production team), labored to crank out each (occasionally awkwardly-truncated) season. [Don’t stop now, young adventurer! Read on!]

Twelve Animated Series You Should Absolutely Watch Now That There’s Time

Welcome to Time Enough at Last: The Home Edition, when we all discover what our true heart’s desire is when we’re stuck with nothing much else to do. Surprise, surprise, it turns out that not many of us are eager to be alphabetizing our book collections, dusting the upper shelves, or cleaning out the back of the fridge like we promised three months ago (sorry, B).

In my case, top priority has been given to the arduous task of sitting around and watching cartoons. And yes, while that can be as infantile as it sounds—as the bowl of Cap’n Crunch next to me attests—it’s also a fact that animated series, even the ones purportedly aimed at kids, have grown more nuanced and sophisticated since the days of Yogi Bear, Transformers, and Smurfs (or whatever you gazed goggle-eyed at from the living room carpet when you were a kid). And adult stuff? No surprise, everything’s on the table there (sometimes literally).

[Read more]

Pixar’s Onward Is a Touching Journey That’s More Magical Than Meaningful

Alfred Hitchcock liked to cite the following, hypothetical scene to explain his approach to storytelling: Two characters sit at a table, having a conversation. The chat goes on for about five minutes, when suddenly, FWOOM!, a bomb explodes. The audience is startled, shocked; it’s an adrenaline moment. Okay. Fine.

Now rewind. Same scene as before, only this time, it starts with a glimpse under the table. We see the bomb, see its timer is set for five minutes. The conversation proceeds, but now we’re on the edge of our seats, knowing something the characters don’t and thus fully invested in their fates.

In short, with the right set up, you can turn a fleeting moment of sensation into a full journey. And although Hitchcock used the example to explain how to create suspense, the technique is not restricted to that one form of audience investment. Not surprisingly, the concept applies quite well to films where an actual journey is involved.

[How, exactly? Read on…]

Ten Brilliant Cartoons That Will Break Your Heart

I woke up last night in a cold sweat. I had a dream.

I dreamed that someone read the list below and said, “Wow, these films sound great! I’m gonna binge this stuff this weekend!”

It…didn’t end well.

Do me a favor: DO NOT binge this list. You may think you’re strong, but take it from the man who sat in his doctor’s waiting room, staring at his tablet while straining, fruitlessly, to suppress the tears: The list is stronger.

[Grab your tissues, and read on!]

More Voices, Better Movies: Ten Standout Genre Films of the 2010s

So…how’d you spend your New Year’s? Me, I skipped parties, parades, and a solemn evaluation of what I shall do in the 2020s to right a life misspent (all that time lost, watching The People’s Court…) and instead crashed on my couch to re-screen the final ten of my favorite genre films of the 2010s. It was heaven. Only downside: repeatedly going, “Wow, I forgot how good this film was. This has to be the best of the decade. No, wait. This film. This is the best! God-dayum, I forgot about this one! This…” You get the idea.

As is my nature, I’ve composed my list with more focus on the smaller, more independent, more daring films of the past ten years. It wasn’t that the mainstream didn’t deliver some impressive works, just that I prefer titles that creep in on the margins—and the 2010s delivered a rich supply of impressive, indie efforts: science fiction films that played with genuine, speculative concepts; horror films that were truly frightening; fantasy films that dared subvert the standard templates.

[Read more]

The Last Ten Decades Represented in Ten Classic Science Fiction Cartoons

I’m going to take a contrary position here. Here we go: It’s conventional wisdom that science fiction and animation are two forms ideally suited for each other. Makes sense—the unbounded palette of the cartoon allows for the creation of technologies, worlds, and scientific concepts that are unrestricted by the limits of live-action filming. (This is not exactly true, by the way—animation tech and production budgets impose their own constraints. But close enough.)

But did you ever consider that, maybe, science fiction is too grounded a genre for the likes of cartoons? After all, animation customarily traffics in talking animals and magic kingdoms; having to adhere to such principles as physics and chemistry can put a damper on the medium’s more fanciful impulses. Why deal with rocket ships when you can just as easily have characters sprout wings and fly to Mars?

[Read more]

Ten WTF-Did-I-Just-Watch? TV Episodes

We are, for the most part, creatures of habit. It’s not an absolute—even the most circumspect of us will occasionally feel the urge to break out of our norms, to seek the novel and, occasionally, the risky. But, face it: in the end we seek security, stability, a return to the familiar, an assurance that the universe is just so, has always been that way, will always be.

One striking example: episodic TV. Whether you binge an entire series or kick it old school and opt for a weekly fix, there is something eminently reassuring in being able to return to the same cast of characters and the same familiar, well-established scenario. Even if the setting is dystopic and the people inhabiting it are right bastards (hellooooooo, Succession!), just the fact that you know pretty much what you’re in for from chapter to chapter instills a warm, comforting glow in your otherwise stressed-out psyche. Audiences like that. Showrunners, studios, whole networks and streaming services like that. They count on it.

[But some episodes dare to veer off the beaten path…]

Cult Anime FLCL Shows Its Darker Side in “Marquis de Carabas”

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince anime fans that the direct-to-video series FLCL (aka Fooly Cooly) was a comedy. Oh sure, it’s got all the trappings: vivid, eccentric characters; fast-paced, hyperbolic animation; and a robot with a severe case of diarrhea. But look past the toilet gags, satirical references, and occasional bits of fanservice, and it isn’t hard to discover a darkness that subsumes the series.

And if you have any questions about how far down into the depths a series can descend while maintaining its clownish façade, all you need do is look at FLCL’s third episode, “Maru Raba,” otherwise known as “Marquis de Carabas.”

[Is it comedy? Is it tragedy? Is it horror? Why not all three? Read more…]

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