Author: Jonathan David Baird

Zombie Amalgamation: Origins of the Modern Revenant

Zombie Amalgamation: Origins of the Modern Revenant

Durher
The idea of the reanimated corpse shambles along the pages of history, and even before there were written records the undead were with us. The modern iteration of the zombie is not one of these creatures, but it is something new. A revenant fueled on modern fears of infection, and mass hysteria, while birthed from the ancient fear of reanimated corpses. The power of the modern zombie comes from the persistent fear of disease and infection. This infection is then paired with different social, economic, and cultural fears to create an ever evolving, but constantly horrifying creature that has become a staple of modern American and even global popular culture. The zombie is a stand in for all sorts of fears. Romero used the zombie to first lay bare the fear of encroaching infectious communism in Night of the Living Dead then he turned 180 degrees and took a shot at commercialism in Dawn of the Dead. Romero proved that the zombie can stand for almost any modern fear because essentially the mindless, raving zombie is man himself.

 

Four Distinct Origins

Our modern zombie who slowly ambles or even quickly chases our hero across the film or TV screen is really the amalgamation of four separate monsters from different portions of the world. The revenant, the ghoul, the vampire, and the Haitian creature of the same name, but different attributes raised up by voodoo. All these undead forms combine in the modern cinematic zombie. It wasn’t until late in the twentieth century that all these were finally condensed into one by George Romero that we get the fully formed creature.
The revenant who is sometimes confused with the modern zombie is probably the closest ancient creature to the modern zombie myth. Revenants were undead creatures from Western European mythology that rose from their graves at night after burial to harass and attack the living. Traditionally those killed by revenants did not themselves come back from the dead. Instead like vampires in Eastern Europe the revenants spread disease and death to the living they attacked. Chapter 24 of book five of the History of England by William of Newburgh attempts to lay out a chronological history of revenants and their attacks on innocent people.

It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony. It would be strange if such things should have happened formerly, since we can find no evidence of them in the works of ancient authors, whose vast labor it was to commit to writing every occurrence worthy of memory; for if they never neglected to register even events of moderate interest, how could they have suppressed a fact at once so amazing and horrible, supposing it to have happened in their day? Moreover, were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome; so I will fain add two more only (and these of recent occurrence) to those I have already narrated, and insert them in our history, as occasion offers, as a warning to posterity. (Newburgh)
Revenants were always thought to have been evil personas in life as well and their evil deeds haunted them beyond the grave. The revenant is also killed in a similar way to the more popular vampire. Beheading the corpse and burning it traditionally stop the revenants from returning from their graves. Revenants however do not have a taste for human flesh. They are most often depicted attacking with claws a teeth but not devouring their victims. The revenant is however a mindless killing machine, much like the modern zombie
Ghouls like revenants are undead creatures. They haunted graveyards at night and unlike the revenant they ate the bodies of the dead and sometimes the living. The mythology of the ghoul was originally Mesopotamian and later Arabic but the idea spread into Western culture at the end of the 18th century from the gothic horror novel Vathek.

“At the moment that their attendants were placing two wreaths of their favourite jasamines on their brows, the Caliph, who had just heard the tragical catastrophe, arrived. He looked not less pale and haggard than the goules that wander at night among graves.” (Beckford 99).

Ghouls display some very classic zombie features. These creatures seek out human flesh in Western stories it is usually the flesh of the dead but in Arabic stories it can be either, they are also undead creatures who have left their graves for the land of the living. The biggest difference and like the revenants is that their curse is not transferrable. They may kill the living but they do not infect the living, they are also not mindless often being depicted as cunning hunters.
The vampire unlike the other two early creatures is an infectious disease of a sort. In the vampire we come close to the very modern nature of the zombie. While vampires lack some distinct criteria such as mindlessness, he and his kin are more closely related to the modern zombie than even the Haitian undead which bears its name. Vampires have become creatures of infection and so are the modern zombies. In fact the infectious nature of zombism is what powers the fear of the zombie. Without the ability to infect a zombie would not really be much of a monster. This infectious nature of vampires was not a classical aspect of the monster and other than one or two stories of vampires creating other vampires the infectious nature of vampirism is really a result of an update to the story in the 19th century. Most vampire attributes “are in fact creations of the fictional vampire, as drawn by Western writers of the nineteenth century.” (Wasik, Murphy). As the 19th century wore on more and more was learned about infectious disease and rabies was raging in Europe. Even on the verge of a cure the disease was being linked to vampirism in fiction. Vampires were to come into possession of the most powerful horror that science could conjure…disease. The idea that a sane man or woman could be permanently transformed into a raging blood fueled monster is terrifying. Even more so would be the zombie who is not only a raging infectious monster, but mindless as well.

The final creature needed to create the modern zombie was an undead creature resurrected by magic and controlled by a mystical wizard or witch. The word Zombie or Zombi is relatively new. It is supposed to have been first used in the book History of Brazil by Robert Southey in 1819. The book is online and after an exhaustive search of volume 1-3 in both English and Spanish this elusive first mention of the word was not to be found. Not to be detoured the next mention of zombies comes to us from the Haitian tradition. In Haiti the zombie is the corpse of a person thought to be revived into a sort of half life by a practitioner of voodoo. This necromancer is called bokor. These undead creatures serve at the behest of the bokor, who has removed the living soul from the body and use it to control the zombie. Zombies are not considered to be mythology in Haiti article 246 of the Haitian criminal code mandates that,
“Est aussi qualifié attentat à la vie d’une personne, par empoisonnement, l’emploi qui sera fait contre elle de substances qui sans donner la mort, auront produit un état léthargique plus ou moins prolongé, de quelque manière que ces substances aient été employées et quelles qu’en aient été les suites.“ this roughly translates to “Any qualified attempt on the life of a person, by poisoning , the use made against it without substances that cause death , have produced a more or less prolonged lethargy , however these substances have been employed and whatever may have been the result” (Haiti criminal code)
While zombies are considered people in prolonged states of lethargy induced by chemical substances under the law the mythology of the traditional zombie has little to do with our modern idea. Other than being revived corpses these creatures have very little in common with the popular mythology of the modern zombie. To find the roots of our modern brain eater we must combine aspects of all the undead that have shambled into Western culture.
Modern Amalgamation.

Since the modern zombie is a combination of several creature archetypes from Western literature how did these creations amalgamate into the modern mythology? George Romero most certainly did not create his zombie creations out of whole cloth. His zombies have a very distinct Hollywood linage. White Zombie released in 1932 is the first zombie film. It depicts the traditional Voodoo zombie controlled by an evil bokor in this case played by Bela Lugos. Lugusi plays Murder Legendre who is a white bokor controlling zombies that work on his plantation. In a way this movie is a social commentary on the evils of slavery which ties into later zombie films which often have social commentary at their core. White Zombie is important because it set the stage for the look and feel of zombies in movie. The shambling dead eyes and even a hatred for the living that the dead exhibit in the movie translates to later work that would make the zombie less controllable and more menacing.
The modern zombie would never have developed without the work done by Richard Matheson in the book I am Legend which was published in 1954 and the movie made from the book called The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Prince in 1964. The film was released just four years before Romero was to film Night of the Living Dead and it is without a doubt a direct precursor to both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Matheson’s book and later movie depict a world that has been wiped out by a virulent virus. The virus kills most people but others it transforms into what are essentially vampires. The vampires have all the classic weaknesses. They can only come out at night, they are allergic to garlic, they can’t stand to see their reflection in mirrors, and they must be staked in the heart and then burned. These are not however the classic vampires in another sense. They are weak and slow. They shamble about exactly how you would expect a modern zombie to do. They do have a limited intelligence and can speak at times, but this seems to be an exception that only certain undead possess. The movie and the book are also social commentary. You discover at the end that not all the vampires are evil and that many of the vampires that the main character hunts down and kills during the day are actually fully human but suffering from vampirism. The moral of the story is a thinly veiled attempt at addressing racism. With his work Matheson sets up almost all the factors you will see in the future concerning zombie films. His work explores contagion, social commentary, post apocalypse living conditions, undead hordes attacking people who have walled themselves off from the outside, and isolation. Isolation is almost certainly the cure to infection but it is also a prelude to fear. Who is to be trusted? Matheson packs all this into his work.
Modern Fears and the survival of the Zombie

Romero picks up where Matheson left off. The importance of these films are that all of Romero’s Zombie movies are social commentaries. In an interview he did with Rick Curnutte in the Film Journal Romero states, “We really were trying to make it as much a metaphor as it was a thrill ride. And I’ve always tried…I don’t know, I’ve never wanted to just do movies about guys in hockey masks with knives, you know? I don’t think that way. I sort of think of what underlies it first.” (Curnutte,Romero). This is at the heart of what makes zombie movies constantly relevant. There is a constant repositioning of the zombie as a social problem. Romero’s zombies are contagious but that contagion is of an unknown origin. In the interview with Curnutte he said, “There were three proposed causes, and we cut two of them out because the scenes were boring and the scenes around them were boring, and that one we left in because it was part of that newscast and it made it seem a little bigger. And that became for a while, people said, “Oh, that’s what happened.” You know, some Venus probe came back and brought some kind of bug. And so I was determined…I don’t want there to be a cause.”(Curnutte, Romero) If the cause were known it may be curable. Romero wanted to keep the audience paranoid and thinking. It worked.
The idea that zombism is an infection becomes real to a modern audience. This realism is important in the staying power of the zombie as a modern monster. Matheson’s vampires were too much a creature of legend. Vampirism is equated with magical thinking. The zombie gave the audience a monster with a scientific cause. A virus that can reanimate the brain and causes the dead body to walk among the living. While this is still a dead body walking around to the modern audience disease, infection, and even inoculation are just as magical. They are things that can’t be seen affecting people in ways that are not understood by the average person. Deep down we see infection as the harbinger of death…why not an undead harbinger.
Zombism as a metaphor for infection and even death was enough to scare the audience but the modern zombie represented much more. Directors like Romero came to link zombies with communism, commercialism, AIDS, terrorism, and even the fear of global warming. Anything that the modern mind feared could be linked to the zombie. At the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty first vampires had been reformed. They sparkled and granted eternal life to good little boys and girls. Werewolves hardly existed on the horror scene replaced by serial killers in masks, who were frightening, but were certainly not world threatening. Frankenstein had stopped being scary the day after the first heart transplant, and forget about the mummy. The mummy was stuck in action comedy. Zombies became kings of horror because the zombie was everything and everywhere. Anyone could become a zombie at anytime.
This brings us back to the real underlying fears of zombism. Infection and Isolation are the currents within the mythology that cause fear to wash over the public. We have talked at length about infection, but what about isolation? In a zombie movie or TV show isolation is the result of the zombie apocalypse. You are left alone in a world of monsters who want to eat you and survivors who want to steal what you have and occasionally they also may want to eat you. You are alone. The reason this is horrifying to the viewer who is not really experiencing a zombie outbreak is the fact that the viewer realizes that they are living in this isolation even without hordes of zombies at their door. Isolation is even more personal than the fear of infection. We all experience isolation. Do we know our neighbors in the twenty first century? Do we trust them? That is a fear that everyone can relate too. It is not a fear that other traditional monsters inspire.
Conclusion

When looking for the roots of the modern zombie the quest can either take you to creatures that are not quite a perfect fit, or to creatures that when combined become the modern zombie. Modern zombies are creatures of modern mythic thinking. They are the embodiment of the fears of modern men written on the template of older monsters. The ancient undead pulling themselves out of the grave pale in comparison to the power modern men have given to our current creature. No monster had the power to destroy the entire world, which was solely the domain of gods in older mythic thinking. The zombie is able to accomplish that feat without a second thought, because infections do not think. Zombies are scary because the zombie embodies any fear we may have as an individual and they embody fears that all humans have such as disease and isolation. This is a very powerful combination. It leaves the zombie in the position of the king of the monsters, a creature so flexible it encompasses any fear.
Bibliography
Beckford, William. Vathek. Paris: Perrin, 1893. Print
Curnette, Rick “There’s No Magic: A Conversation With George A. Romero” The Film Journal. http://www.thefilmjournal.com/issue10/romero.html . Web. 4 Dec 2014.
Haitian Penal Code http://www.oas.org/juridico/mla/fr/hti/fr_hti_penal.html . Web 4 Dec 2014.

Halperin, Victor, Edward Halperin, Garnett Weston, Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn, Robert Frazer, John Harron, Brandon Hurst, Xavier Cugat, and William Seabrook. White Zombie. Los Angeles, CA: Roan Group Archival Entertainment, 1999.

Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. New York: ORB, 1995. Print.

Newburgh, William. The Church Historians of England, volume IV, part II; translated by Joseph Stevenson (London: Seeley’s, 1861) Web. 4 Dec 2014

Salkow, Sidney, Robert L. Lippert, Logan Swanson, William F. Leicester, Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter, Colli F. Delli, Gene Ruggiero, and Richard Matheson. The Last Man on Earth. Beverly Hills, CA: Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2007.

Streiner, Russ, John Russo, George A. Romero, Duane Jones, and Judith O’Dea. Night of the Living Dead. New York, N.Y: Elite Entertainment, 2002.

Wasik, Bill, and Monica Murphy. Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus. , 2012. Print.

Liberty Con Day-1

Liberty Con Day-1

Technically today is day two for me at Liberty Con since I was here last night and met several people at  Lupi’s Pizza and inadvertently missed the wedding that I had planned on crashing.  Oh well, that is the cost of meeting new people. This morning I went to breakfast and saw Doug Dandridge, who I had met the night before, eating alone so I invited myself over and had a very pleasant conversation with him. I have enjoyed his work and I utilized his non-fiction work How I sold 100,000 Books On Amazon in setting up my last anthology.

At 3:00 I am going to be at Author’s Alley signing and selling my own books. If you are at Liberty Con today please come out and see me.

I believe Mark Wandrey’s book launch party for Etude to War is tonight at 7pm and I plan on attending.

I will update here at Nuke Mars throughout the weekend as to how things are going,

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.-Skye is a Disney Princess

Is her name Luna?

I have a crazy theory that Skye on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a Disney princess.

Almost everyone believes that Skye is an inhuman…my theory explains who she is? What the Obelisk is? Who Skye’s father is? and how this all ties into the Civil War storyline.

Skye is the daughter of Black Bolt’s brother Maximus the Mad.

Her name is Luna. I realize that Luna is the daughter of Quicksilver in the 616 Universe, but in the Ultimate Universe Quicksilver never fell in love with Crystal and I believe that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to mirror the Ultimate Universe when it comes to Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.

Her mother is the inhuman Crystal who has been engaged to Maximus in the comics.

Her father has been king of the Inhumans several times. Her mother is a member of the royal family as well.

If Skye is the daughter of Maximus then she is a certified Disney princess.

What is the Obelisk?

The Obelisk is a Terrigen-bomb. The same type of bomb that restored the powers of all mutantkind after House of M. Terrigen will kill baseline humans in grotesque ways, but does not kill mutants or humans that have inhuman DNA.

The bomb will cause any human with inhuman or mutant DNA to develop powers. the detonation of this device and the resulting explosion of people with super powers will force the government to  implement the mutant/inhuman/superpower registration act and the cause of the Civil War.

I believe the key to the entire Marvel cinematic phase three is in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

or I could be totally wrong.

Classic Horror As It Was Meant To Be Seen.

Classic Horror As It Was Meant To Be Seen.

Two years ago, Cineplex Odeon played a pair of Universal horror classics, Tod Browning’s DRACULA and James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN, as part of its Classic Film Series. While I can watch Whale’s film (and the rest of his horror output) countless times without exhaustion, Browning’s version of the Bram Stoker novel had always been for me and many others quite a chore to watch. Made while the film industry was still undergoing growing pains in the transition to sound, it always seemed  too slow and static, and with much of the action offscreen, is reminiscent at times of a filmed stage play (which it in essence actually was) or even a radio play, if you close your eyes. Not even a special score added years later by Phillip Glass and The Kronos Quartet did anything to alleviate things; it now kept me awake, but it was more out of annoyance over the endless ringing and repetitive screeching, a textbook example of what my friend David Sindelar has called an “elevator score,” a musical soundtrack that sounds the same no matter what the actual action on screen is.

Browning's Dracula

But something miraculous happened during this particular viewing. Not only did I stay awake and find myself actually drawn into the action, but the movie actually scared me. No, there were none of the sudden shocks that has come to characterize modern horror, but I still felt genuinely afraid. Browning’s DRACULA is still a flawed film, with stodgy direction (Browning would fare much better with the later FREAKS, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE and THE DEVIL DOLL, all of which successfully recaptured the style of his macabre silent classics), and inconsistent acting, but Bela Lugosi’s performance  is revealed to be an excellent characterization, no longer seeming hammy when projected on the big screen instead of being viewed on a relatively small TV  and the opening fifteen minutes have such an incredible power when seen under the right conditions, that this time, instead of being letdown by the remainder of the movie, they lingered so deeply that they succeeded in elevating subsequent scenes. Obviously, the problem wasn’t with the movie itself, but the shoddy conditions I had seen it under initially. When watching it as it was intended to be shown, with a fully restored image and projected on an appropriately-sized big screen, it worked just as intended.

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If DRACULA was greatly improved by being shown on the big screen, how would FRANKENSTEIN, a much more visually audacious and fluid film, brilliantly directed by James Whale and superbly acted by Colin Clive and Boris Karloff, fare under the same conditions? I’ve always loved this film and appreciated its genius and artistry even more this time. Not only was it genuinely frightening (with one actual, famous jump scare that made the audience gasp even as they knew it was coming), but the entire film has a pervasive feeling of evil and corruption which grows and develops, the same sort of sensation of encroaching horror and menace that the BLAIR WITCH PROJECT would successfully exploit as well. It became very obvious to me why this movie frightened and moved so many people on its initial release, and why it has continued to do so even as more graphic and extreme horror films became the norm. Karloff’s performance was all the more powerful this time around, his expressions in close-up having even greater impact when blown up to proper size. It was also much easier to appreciate Whale’s superb compositions and visuals now that I could truly see them in full, but for the first time, I was aware of just how effectively he uses sound to convey horror (something Browning forgot to do), in such scenes as the one where the villager carries his daughter’s body, with the incessant ringing of the church bells contributing greatly to its effectiveness. Karloff and Whale were not the only artists who had their work properly rewarded by the restored theatrical print; make-up artist Jack Pierce’s work on Karloff also looked even better than ever, as fine details that were not obvious on earlier viewings suddenly became apparent, and I became aware of just how meticulous and well-conceived Pierce’s handiwork was. For instance, I had noticed for the first time the outlines of veins and and sinew, and that Pierce had placed bolts not just on Karloff’s arms but under the Monster’s skin as well.

The Mummy and The Wolfman

Last year, Cineplex-Odeon played a Barbra Streisand film for Halloween (which is scary in its own right, but not the same thing), but this year, it’s playing a double bill of THE MUMMY and THE WOLFMAN at select theaters, on Sunday October 26 and Wednesday October 29. Both films are classics in their own right and among my own personal favorite horror films of all time; needless to say, I am eagerly looking forward to seeing them in fully restored theatrical prints. If you have never seen either of them before, this is your chance to see them for the first time under the best possible conditions, and I envy you for the experience.

 

We have a New Anthology At Crosstime Publishing

We have a New Anthology At Crosstime Publishing

The Book of Unchained Shadows is out now. I only make these promotional posts when a new book comes out, so don’t worry we are not becoming an ad drenched site. This anthology features some very talented new authors. If you like horror, if you like ghosts, the undead, etc you will love this book. The stories are set in chronological order. It starts with a Viking tale and ends with a story in a contemporary setting.

I LOATHED LUCY

I LOATHED LUCY

Mira-el-trailer-de-Lucy-la-nueva-película-de-Luc-Besson

Quick, what does this remind you of? Lucy is a naïve American college student living in Hong Kong, emotionally fragile and seemingly none too bright, who has made the wrong sort of boyfriend, the sort who “innocently” asks you to deliver a briefcase to some fellows who “just happen” to be some big-time Asian drug dealers. And they don’t just take the briefcase, no siree, they brutalize the poor woman before cutting her open and implanting its contents-bags filled with a new synthetic drug based on hormones secreted by pregnant women-into her stomach, with the goal of using her as an unwilling drug mule into the United States. Another beating ruptures one of the bags, causing the drugs to leak and get absorbed into her system. The next time the creeps come to interrogate her, they’re face-to-face with a new woman, as the drugs have not only caused Lucy to undergo a radical personality change, but to enhance everyone of her physical abilities. After giving her captors back what they gave her (and then some) the now intellectually enhanced, emotionally as well as physically resilient Lucy goes on a mission to stop the remaining smugglers and gain the rest of the drug, which she needs to survive and to achieve her full potential. To learn how to do that, she also searches for Dr. Samuel Norman, a neurobiologist (I think; the film never makes his specialty clear) to help understand her powers, which include continually augmenting cognitive and sensory powers and the ability to change her hair and eye color to disguise herself, as well as to adapt herself to any confrontational situation she finds herself in.

Longtime readers of this blog will no doubt have already surmised that yes, what we have here is yet another adaptation of Stanley Weinbaum’s “The Adaptive Ultimate”, albeit uncredited and possibly accidental (far be it for me to fall victim to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy that too many other fans succumb to). Alas, Luc Besson’s film is not only not an improvement on the Weinbaum story, it’s not an improvement on the TV adaptations either, and a reminder, as if it is needed, that no matter how slick the production values or eye-boggling the visuals may be, it doesn’t matter if one doesn’t have a decent script. If anything, it’s a textbook example of everything that has gone wrong with SF cinema since the advent of Star Wars, and it’s sad to see so much fine talent and promising ideas squandered on a such an unsatisfying final product. The filmmaker’s consensus over the past thirty years has apparently been that science fiction can only be smuggled into cinemas under the guise of the action film, and that the more special effects, the better. Maybe they are right; it is after all, not only what sells best to the general public, but attracts the attention of fanboys and -girls who eat this sort of product up uncritically without realizing that it has been done before, and better, not just by an older generation of filmmakers but by the writers of classic science fiction stories that have been cannibalized for inspiration.

Nearly every other review of Lucy has already mentioned that the notion that we only use five or ten percent of our brain that the movie uses as a story springboard and is repeatedly hammered home in the film’s trailer is a complete myth (although the other glaring scientific errors, particularly the film’s misreading of the process of evolution as teleological instead of mechanistic, have managed to avoid their scrutiny). Nonetheless, it’s quite an appropriate myth for this film to rely on, for here is a prime example of a movie that fails completely to utilize potentially intelligent and thought-provoking material to their full capacity. In addition to the Weinbaum story, science fiction fans will also be reminded of Greg Bear’s Blood Music (information theory and biological computation plays an important role late in the film) and the works of Olaf Stapledon, especially towards the end.. and I emphasize, towards the end. When Lucy is at the point of achieving her full biological potential and explains what she now knows and understands with her enhanced perceptual and cognitive abilities, it’s a potentially fascinating but all-too brief moment, and we’re too numbed by the hour and a half of violence and banality that has preceded it to really care. Throughout the film I wanted to know, what is this character really undergoing? What does it really feel like to undergo this radical process of neurological and physiological transformation? Apart from a phone conversation Lucy has with her mother in which she starts telling her about all the memories that are flooding back to her since her birth, down to the last detail, we frustratingly remain distant from this potentially intriguing character, and cannot get involved with either her or her situation. In its place we get plenty of action and fight scenes that are extremely bloody and brutal but never exciting or suspenseful; because Lucy becomes seemingly invincible so early on in the movie, the outcome of every such scene is never in doubt. In fact, our purported heroine winds up being so cold-blooded and indiscriminate in her killings that it becomes difficult to generate any sympathy for her at all.

The performances from the leads don’t help, which is rather shocking considering how reliable these actors usually are. Scarlett Johansson has become something of a regular in science fiction cinema of late, and although I did not see either Her or Under the Skin, I am told she was excellent in both. Unfortunately, this is one of the very few weak performances I’ve seen from her. Although exuding confidence, Johansson in unconvincing in her attempts to convey the emotional and psychological metamorphosis that she is supposed to be undergoing, and fails to generate much sympathy for her plight. I had mentioned earlier in my review of the Science Fiction Theater adaptation of “The Adaptive Ultimate” that one of the strengths of that episode was the excellent performance of Joan Vohs, who despite the great physical and personality changes her character underwent nonetheless convinced us completely she was still the same person. Johansson, on the other hand, seems to transform into a completely different person than the one we initially see at the beginning of the film, with too abrupt a transition and no shadings present. One moment she’s an ordinary, quite dull woman, make-up free and blubbering with fear, shedding more tears than the audience for The Fault in Our Stars in the neighboring auditorium, the next moment she has metamorphosed into the kick-ass-but-gorgeous chick that has become such a genre cliché, distinguished from the rest of the pack by her Buster Keaton-style stony-faced look and hushed-tone delivery that’s apparently supposed to convey higher intelligence. Johansson’s Lucy remains a cipher, someone who we are frustratingly incapable of connecting with, possibly because the actress herself failed to connect with the character. Morgan Freeman meanwhile seems weary as Dr. Norman, as if he is tired of being continually handed these Authoritative Voices of Authentic Wisdom parts that seem Xeroxed specifically for him. And he probably is; years before he achieved global stardom and acclaim, he was already complaining that he was being handed too many “good guy” parts despite his villainous turn in Street Smart (and his superb performance as a vile sadistic pimp in that sleeper is absolutely blood-chilling). The other performances are literally disposable, just there to move the plot along or to add to the film’s body count.

While the actors are more underwhelming than they usually are, the direction by Luc Besson is, as almost always is the case with him, way overdone. I did enjoy his The Fifth Element, which was a Nouvelle Vague French science fiction comic come to life; it may have been a mess, but it was an imaginative and entertaining one, and Besson’s style was appropriate to that particular brand of speculative fiction. With a premise such as that featured in Lucy, one expects a more subtle and thoughtful handling of the material than what Besson is known for; it’s bad enough to see it get dumbed down into a typical action film, but Besson also seemingly tries to compensate for the loss of intelligent material by hammering away all remaining subtlety in what remains. I’m reminded of Charly, the film adaptation of Daniel Keyes’ classic novel Flowers for Algernon, in which both the immensely touching original story and Cliff Robertson’s beautifully conceived performance are almost buried by wrong-headed, stylistically faddish directorial impositions. Besson over-directs everything, not just the numerous action scenes (the best being a car chase in the middle of Paris) but the more quiet scenes that are supposed to help develop the characters or give us a chance to contemplate the film’s ideas. There are warning signs early on in Lucy’s opening conversation with her boyfriend that things are going to be rough sledding: when he remarks that Lucy was also the name of the first woman, there’s a quick cut to a shot of an Australopithecus woman. When he hands her the drugs, the scene is intercut with a shot of a white lab rat approaching some cheese in a trap. Is your head hurting from the sledgehammer blows yet? Wait until Freeman delivers his lecture. His ruminations on evolution are accompanied by swiftly-edited nature montages in the style of Koyannisqatsi, with one sequence of animal-copulation garnering much unintentional chuckles from the audience. When Besson needs to show us that Lucy can now read Chinese, he doesn’t merely superimpose English letters over Chinese words, or even just have her simply glance and let us read Johansson’s expression so that we simply and subtly now know that she now understands their meaning. No the Chinese letters have to fly off the screen, and morph into English, because we’re too stupid to get it otherwise. It’s somewhat more effective when Lucy is able to witness the processes of chlorophyll action in a nearby tree or when she hugs her friend, and immediately diagnoses a heretofore undetected malady, but when she’s able to see the electromagnetic lines of force emanating from cellphones, perceiving each individual waveband in a different color, it looks like a glossy commercial (“Can You See Me Now?”), and it’s utterly ludicrous when she’s able to reach out and physically touch them (note: “lines of force” are a mathematical object, not something tangible).

90% of all science fiction is crud, or so said Theodore Sturgeon all those years ago. That’s another percentage estimate which is doubtful; movies like Lucy suggest it’s even higher.

The Freehold is transitioning over to Nuke Mars

The site was originally named after Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold, however since the first day the site went live there has been some confusion between this site and the Freehold novels by Micheal Z. Williamson. I was not familiar with that series when we started the site in 2011, but I have come to understand that Williamson’s series and this site share a similar political ideology. To avoid further confusion we are changing the name to Nuke Mars. NukeMars.com has been my personal creative blog for about a year and I will gradually move that content into this site under one of the tabs.

As for what the future holds for this site, we will be posting more later. I do hope to continue the Enquiring Hitchhiker Interview series, keep updating the academic articles, and move towards an even more hard academic outlook on science fiction, fantasy, and horror. This emphasis is what separates us from most of the genre sites on the net and I hope to provide much more content in the weeks and months ahead.

Thanks,

Jonathan David Baird

Interview: Godzilla Fan and Writer Armand Vaquer

Interview: Godzilla Fan and Writer Armand Vaquer

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With the new Godzilla film scorching up the box office and also proving to be a surprising critical hit as well, we thought this was a good time to consult an expert in the field. Armand Vaquer, author of The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide to Japan, has long been a fan of Godzilla and other Japanese giant monsters, and has been active in G-fandom for years. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his time in fandom and shed some light on an often-misunderstood genre and fan subculture.

 

1.Thanks for granting us this interview Armand! Tell us a little first about your own history with Godzilla and your involvement with Japanese fantastic film fandom.
Well, the first time I saw Godzilla was in 1962 when Los Angeles station KHJ-TV Channel 9 ran “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” one afternoon. I was playing outside on our front porch with a friend and his mother yelled from across the fence that Godzilla was coming on television. So he ran off. My mom was standing at the door and I asked her what Godzilla was and she told me that he’s a big dinosaur. That interested me, so I went in and watched it and was hooked. Then, a year later, several friends and I were taken by my parents to see “King Kong vs. Godzilla” at the theater. Funny thing, a few years before she died, my mom told me that they took me to the drive-in to see “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” when I was two years old (that would be 1956). I have no memory of that.
I wrote for G-Fan magazine for nine years, mainly about landmarks and locations used in the movies. I also worked on different projects such as “Godzilla Week” in 2000, wrote Rick Dee’s narrative for the Godzilla float at the 2004 Hollywood Christmas Parade and the History of Godzilla speech for Johnny Grant for the Walk of Fame Dedication. The last two were at the request of Toho. I also organized the “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” plaque at the former location of the studio where Raymond Burr was filmed. It is now an elementary school and the plaque is at the main entrance.
2.The term kaiju (like “steampunk”) gets frequently misinterpreted by those who are aware of the genre but unfamiliar with it; it frequently gets stretched and distorted to refer to any sort of giant monster film regardless of country of origin or any live-action science fiction film or TV show from Japan. For the benefit of our readers, can you explain the kaiju genre to them and how it should be distinguished from the broader genre of tokusatsu?
Well, tokusatsu generally means live-action special effects films of different genres shown on television or theatrically, including kaiju and super-heroes originating from Japan. Kaiju means literally strange creature. Daikaiju just means big strange creature.
3.You’re also the author of The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide to Japan. Tell us a little about this book, and how readers should use it.
The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide To Japan is a travel guide tailored to fans of kaiju movies (Godzilla, Gamera, etc.) to provide information on the locations and landmarks used in the movies and where they are, how to get there and what other attractions are nearby of interest. There’s some Ultraman places of interest as well in the book. Where available, I also included some accommodation places. It can be used either as a reference book on what locations and landmarks were used and what movies they appeared in. It is available in print form or as an ebook at Amazon’s Kindle Store. I will be publishing a revised second edition sometime next year. Work has already begun on it.
Many people have written to me that they found it very useful when they were on vacation in Japan.

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4. Our readers will undoubtedly be very interested to read about your lifelong political work as well; you’ve had quite a fascinating career! Have there been any interesting moments where your political and fan work coincided?
I was on three California national convention delegations for Ronald Reagan (1976, 1980 and 1984) and an area chairman for the Reagan campaigns. My political work tapered off when I got married and when my daughter was born. But the political contacts I have came in handy in getting the “Godzilla Week” and “Godzilla Month” proclamations through the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through. I’ve known Supervisor Michael Antonovich since the 1970s and worked with him on the proclamations. He’s a big fanboy himself, so it was easy to get his help.
I worked as a field representative to Assemblyman Paul T. Bannai, the first Japanese-American to be elected to the state legislature in California, back in the 1970s. Working with him and the Japanese community in the Gardena area was useful in learning how to work with Japanese people. I also learned press work while working for Bannai, which also came in handy in later years.

5. We’ll wrap up by asking you what are your future writing plans, and what sort of future do you see for Godzilla here in the Americas after the critical and commercial success of the new film? And thank you once again!
At present, I am just writing for my blog, Armand’s Rancho Del Cielo and contributing to Monster Island News and working on an updated The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide To Japan.

It appears that Godzilla is a hit and plans are in progress for a sequel. I am guessing that Godzilla as a franchise in America will last about 2-3 movies, provided they don’t muck it up. If they have engaging stories, interesting monster foes for Godzilla to fight and great special effects, the franchise should last several movies. Why not? This may also spur Toho to get back into the kaiju game again. But I think the days of suitmation may be over, or more limited in Japan. Toho demolished their Big Pool during the past ten years, so they will probably go the CGI route.
I think they should let Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. carry the “Godzilla ball” for now and concentrate on reviving their other monsters such as Rodan and Mothra with a combination of models, suits and CGI. Or come up with new monster characters.

Thanks Armand! You can check out Armand’s Rancho Del Cielo for informative updates on Godzilla fandom, California politics, and more, and order The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide to Japan from his website or at Amazon Kindle!

 

Dissecting Divergent

Dissecting Divergent

 

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Entertaining yet not quite fulfilling, intelligent but underdeveloped, and having provoked an extremely broad range of critical reaction without any clear consensus, Divergent certainly lives up to its title in terms of both its internal contradictions and audience reception. It’s enjoyable enough to merit a viewing and it provides an intriguing fictional society and setting that feels genuinely lived-in. Additionally, the social factions that form the crux of the story’s plot and themes are quite interesting in the way they represent contemporary social and ideological divisions as well as moral virtues. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the individual characters in the film, however likeable some of the actors playing them are, and the movie leaves too many questions about its themes and setting frustratingly unanswered. Hopefully, these will be addressed in the inevitable sequels; as it is, many of the repetitive action scenes and fight sequences could have been pared down to provide some much-needed exposition and to explore the underdeveloped but promising themes.

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Although Divergent‘s core premise of contemporary ideologies and occupational groups having become biologically distinct in the future may seem novel to viewers and readers unfamiliar with the history of science fiction, the film, like last year’s Elysium, is just playing with themes first introduced by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine. Unfortunately, like too many other fictional dystopias that also bear massive debts to that particular novel, including such films as Logan’s Run and Zardoz, it seemingly has not learned one of the most important lessons taught by Wells: explaining how a fictional future world came to be, and how the social and biological distinctions between its groups emerged. At least in George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the hows and whys of a society’s emergence as well as its contradictions and implausibilities were easily hand-waved away because what was important was the author’s allegorical concerns and their intent of projecting and amplifying modern-day socio-political trends. The makers of Divergent don’t seem concerned with such questions, and we go hungry trying to figure them out. We never learn what exactly was the disaster that isolated Chicago from the rest of the world, or how this particular caste system arose. Clearly it has not been in genetic isolation long enough to have evolved naturally, but if the society was genetically engineered, who did it and why? Presumably, the Erudites or their ancestors had a hand in it, but then why didn’t they put themselves in a leadership position in the first place? Why go to the trouble of engineering a race (although contemporary notions of race and ethnicity are irrelevant in this future) as potentially dangerous as the Dauntless? And most pressing of all, why would a community as supposedly intelligent as the Erudites come up with a scheme for seizing control as needlessly complicated and open to failure as that in the film, one which is even more senseless when you consider the destructive effects it would have on such a hermeneutically-sealed community? I have been lent the first book in the series, and hopefully, these questions of mine will be answered as I read through it.

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Despite the inevitable comparisons to the Hunger Games series and other works of “young adult” fiction that frequently are given a “privileged” position above the science fiction shelves in bookstores and libraries, I was reminded much more of Robert A. Heinlein while watching the film. Not only are there obvious echoes of Heinlein’s own juvenile novels, but of such key works as Beyond This Horizon, “Gulf,” and even Orphans of the Sky. Oddly enough, I was also reminded of “The Roads Must Roll,” with its critiques of functionalism and over-specialization. Heinlein’s famous dictum that “specialization is for insects” is certainly applicable to this movie, since the film criticizes the notion that people can easily be set into neat categories based on their social or cognitive competence, and champions not just individuals like Tris who try to rise above such attempts at pigeonholing, but views well-roundness as a virtue in of itself. Each faction is shown to have a certain flaw that comes as a result of over-specialization, Candors are blunt to the point of often being insulting, Erudites tend to be intrusive in their search for knowledge, and the Abnegation conceal the truth. The Dauntless, of course, tend to be overly violent as a consequence of their lack of fear. Ideally, the film seems to be saying, an individual should strive towards all the best virtues represented by each faction while playing down the flaws, not only so that they will be able to achieve universal competence, but learn how to treat people properly and be truly civilized. As one character says (and I paraphrase from memory) “I want to be brave, selfless, intelligent and honest and kind.” In addition to the critique of social categorization, the contrast between the mental traits of the factions sets up interesting possibilities to explore the nature of openness and secrecy in both social and interpersonal relationships, but these possibilities frustratingly go nowhere. The filmmakers could have learned well from Heinlein how to properly balance both thoughtfulness and entertainment, as the potentially fascinating themes dissipate in the last third in the morass of action and fight scenes. Heinlein also provided readers with similar action and excitement, of course, but it was never at the expense of the story’s themes or overall intelligence, and those who insist that good science fiction follow such rules will not be pleased with the direction the movie takes.

 

Some reviewers have regarded Divergent strictly from perceived allegorical elements, as being a commentary on high school cliques and social pressures. This would make the film essentially a reversal of the 1976 cult classic Massacre at Central High, itself a political allegory that used high schools and their students to comment on the nature of political violence and ideological conflict, and there are some surprising similarities. In Rene Daalder’s film (a personal favorite of mine), a trio of fearless bullies dominate their high school through the abusive use of their physical superiority and spend their leisure time indulging in such daredevil pursuits as hang gliding, high diving, and surfing. It’s much like a society where the Dauntless have the upper hand. The students they bully and lord over also, oddly enough, have parallels to the factions in Divergent, representing as they do different social types and political ideologies: there are elitist intellectuals, impoverished agrarians, the voiceless oppressed , even the equivalent of Candors in the form of Robert Carradine’s bohemian anarchist, the school’s only voice of honest political dissidence, who speaks out against the bullying in the form of graffiti on the walls and lockers. A Divergent arrives in the form of rebellious, working-class hero David (Derrel Maury) who stirs up trouble by encouraging the other students to stand up for themselves and fight back. When the bullies retaliate by crippling him, he then turns to full-blown murder, killing each of the thugs to fulfill his dreams of social liberation. But the newly-liberated students prove to be just as bad as those before them, intent on creating new systems of oppression based on their own ideologies, which sets the disillusioned David off on a second murder spree. It’s a fascinating, very well done film, one which is open to multiple readings and interpretations (like several others, I regard it as an allegory for the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s rise to power) and it is well worth one’s time.

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The makers of Divergent would have done well to have watched Daalder’s film as well if there was indeed allegorical intent at work, as the potentially fascinating themes and representations in their movie wind up being buried or swept aside by in favor of the cliches and conventions of the action film. Although Massacre at Central High,  successfully delivers all the violence promised in its title, it is never gratuitous but always done in the name of thematic relevance. Every death has emotional impact, no matter how unsympathetic the character, since the film went to the trouble of developing them beyond their symbolic value. This helps hit home the film’s messages about the stupidity of using violence to solve social problems, and that you can’t stop a bully by becoming an even bigger bully. In the film version of Divergent at least, the characters fail to get developed beyond their being representatives of various factions, and even at that, the fact that the factions themselves are insufficiently developed other than the Dauntless and the Abnegation (in particular, the Amity practically disappear from the film after the prologue). On the other hand, for an example of a contemporary filmmaker who understands very well how to make a cinematic allegory, Christopher Nolan has done an outstanding job of doing so with the Dark Knight trilogy.

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Although I’ve made my own criticisms, some of the other negative comments directed against the film have struck me as unfair and more revealing of the prejudices of the reviewers themselves than the actual film. Some have assailed the film as being anti-intellectual, even outright anti-science, for casting the Erudites as the main bad guys, making much of author Veronica Roth’s Christian beliefs (not unlike the Mormon-phobia that frequently accompanies critiques of Stephenie Meyer) in doing so. It’s an argument I don’t buy, since not only is it unclear if all or just some of the Erudites are in on the conspiracy, but the other factions are also shown to be just as flawed, especially when other members of Dauntless emerge as cold-blooded killers. In particular, both Jai Courtney’s Eric and Miles Teller’s Peter are shown to be thoroughly nasty and cruel individuals who are impossible to like, and it’s equally impossible to sympathize with the “might makes right” attitude they espouse. If anything, the film is trying to be critical not of intelligence or even ambition itself, but the impulsive desire to control others, as well as monomania as a social pathology. Still others have made much of how Kate Winslet’s coldly-calculating, power-hungry villain has seemingly been made up to look like Hillary Clinton. While the physical resemblances may be a coincidence, when it comes to the personality similarities, well, the truth sometimes hurts.

 

Shailene Woodley had previously co-starred with fellow Divergent cast member Miles Teller in one of 2013’s best films, The Spectacular Now.  In that winning little sleeper, her adolescent science fiction fan develops a romantic relationship with Teller’s booze-swilling young slacker-in-training, gradually coaxing him into maturity. Her character in that film would have likely enjoyed the book Divergent and maybe even might have liked the film adaptation, but two-thirds of the way through, she would have probably wished she was reading something by Wells or Heinlein instead.

Movie Review: Science At Work

Movie Review: Science At Work

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The late, great Frederick Pohl opened Chasing Science, his wonderful memoir of scientific tourism, with an account of his visits to America’s national laboratories. Although the majority work under heavy security there is one lab, as Pohl notes, that always welcomes visitors with open arms: Fermilab in DuPage County, Illinois. It is there that the Top Quark was discovered, solidifying the Standard Model and establishing it firmly as the touchstone of modern physics, and it remained the country’s leading particle physics facility until the recent shutdown of the Tevatron accelerator. Even so, it remains a major research center as well as a popular tourist attraction in the greater Chicago area, and the recent documentary Science at Work provides a virtual tour of the lab for those of us who have wanted to but never had a chance to pay a visit.

 

As its title implies, Science at Work is a film about scientists on the job, chronicling a full work week at Fermilab spotlighting a new project on each day, usually emphasizing one scientist in particular who will serve as sort of a tour guide on the journey. Many of the segments open with the scientists at home, saying goodbye to their children, or bringing them to the lab, either to its day care center or as part of a “Bring Your Sons and Daughters To Work” day. Some drive to work, others ride their bikes. All come off as warm, friendly and gregarious, the type of people you’d love to have as your neighbor; the filmmakers have done an excellent job of choosing their interview subjects. These are precisely the people needed to communicate science to a Middle-American audience, but whose voices have been largely muted until now. One gets the sense that while Fermilab might be in Chicago’s backyard, its values are still those of DuPage and the surrounding counties (Naperville, the largest city in the area, was once named one of the most conservative cities in the country), with a deeply-ingrained sense of hard work, fair play and entrepreneurship incorporated into the scientific ethos. As one researcher puts it, when you’re employed at Fermilab, you become part of a family, and that familial atmosphere really comes through to the film’s credit.

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Fermilab was founded and designed in part by its first director, Wyoming native Robert R. Wilson, who incorporated much of his home state into the lab’s prairie terrain; it is as well-known for its herds of buffalo as it is for its scientific work. Appropriately enough for a lab founded by a native of the tiny community of Frontier, Wyoming, Fermilab’s research focuses on what it describes as three fundamental Frontiers of Particle Physics. As eloquently explained in the documentary by senior scientist Herman White and cosmologist Craig Hogan, these are the Cosmic Frontier, which studies naturally-occurring particle interactions to gain a better understanding of dark energy and dark matter, among other phenomena; the Energy Frontier, which involves colliding and accelerating particles at high energies to generate new particles and recreate the early state of the universe under controlled conditions; and finally the Intensity Frontier, which probes matter and subatomic processes with intense muon and neutrino beams (a method developed by the lab’s second director, Leon Lederman, for which he won the Nobel Prize). Each Frontier gets spotlighted by the film, with physicists actively engaged in each project explaining the science behind them. Particularly entertaining is Intensity Frontier physicist Bonnie Fleming’s explanation of neutrino flavor-changing which uses ice cream as a metaphor, complete with Sesame Street-style animation. The eloquence and down-to-earth style of the interview subjects combined with the film’s incorporation of simple animation and graphics go a long way in making the complexity of particle physics accessible to the novice viewer, and if the subject matter is overly simplified, it will at least make most viewers curious enough to learn more about it.

 

 

Although an entertaining and thought-provoking documentary, Science at Work is also a flawed film, and the main flaw is reflected in the title. Near the end, one scientist cheerfully remarks that contrary to what you may think, you don’t need to be a genius to be a scientist, just a hard worker and rigorous thinker. Unfortunately, this process of hard work and rigorous thought isn’t really visible on screen. We see them explain it, and we see snippets of the scientists at the job, but we never really get a feeling as to how much effort, mental and physical, that the scientists must put into their work. Nor, for that matter, are all the frustrations that arise from experiments not working, machinery breaking down, mismeasurements, and all the rest documented, although they surely must have occurred during filming! Although we put so much emphasis on getting young people interested in science and in choosing STEM careers, if we aren’t also realistic and depict the hard work and long hours, as well as the particular frustrations of such a career, we are only being unfair to them. Additionally, even though we are told that a majority of those who work at Fermilab are actually not scientists but engineers, machinists, and others who keep the equipment running and in order, and although we see them briefly, we never actually hear from them. They are as much part of the endeavor of discovery as the scientists themselves and it would have been nice to have heard their voices as well. In a longer film-the documentary runs a mere forty-two minutes-there might have been space for them but time and money are as much a bugbear for documentary film as they are for its narrative counterpart.

 

A more personal quibble is that we don’t get enough of Fermilab itself in the film. Robert Wilson, a gifted architect and sculptor as well as a great scientist, was determined to make sure his lab stood out from the drab dreariness of most government buildings, and although it would be the famously gregarious second director Leon Lederman who would make the lab a public attraction, the attractiveness of the lab with its futuristic buildings and modernist sculptures dotting the landscape, was Wilson’s idea. There’s a beautiful shot early on of one of the scientists bicycling through one Wilson’s sculptures, appropriately called Broken Symmetry, and the movie could have used more images like this, but instead, we frustratingly mostly only see bits and pieces of the lab’s layout and design instead of witnessing it in full. A sequence where a tabletop model of the lab is used to explain the main collider ring winds up being almost comical, like a parody of a scene in a James Bond film where the villain explains his master plan, and only amplifies the frustration of not seeing exteriors of the device up-close and personal.

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A just-released documentary called Particle Fever has been receiving much Internet buzz as well as widespread critical acclaim. Dealing with the hunt for the Higgs Boson conducted at CERN and the lives of the scientists involved in the search, it sounds like the type of film I’m always anxious to see, but alas, isn’t opening anywhere near me. Fortunately, thanks to YouTube, I was able to instead watch Science at Work. Just as Fermilab and its achievements shouldn’t be forgotten in the shadow of the Higgs, this dearly made, relatively short film shouldn’t be overlooked with all the hype surrounding Particle Fever and in spite of its flaws, it merits a viewing in order to get to know the people who are furthering our understanding of the universe. Even if it is too cursory to provide a thorough exploration of the lab, it at least encourages our appreciation of those explorers who work within it, and will leave you wanting to learn more. And wanting to learn more is what being a scientist is all about.

This review is dedicated to the memory of Joanna Ploeger, friend, scholar and mentor.