2011 in [geek] review

Andrew asked me to write a post looking back at nerdy stuff in 2011. I didn’t see every movie or play every video game, so this isn’t an all-encompassing year-in-review post, but as I made my notes preparing to write the thing, I realized it was a pretty full year, as nerdy pursuits go. What follows is a subject-by-subject look at some of the nerdy things that I personally enjoyed in 2011.

There were several super hero films this summer (which seems to be typical nowadays). I missed the one most folks were panning (Green Lantern) but I think I caught the rest of them. The production design was lovely in X-Men First Class, but the film suffered from egregious retconning and some fairly blatant racism and sexism (I know the film is set in the 60s when these were bigger cultural problems than they are now, but did they really have to kill the black super hero first? Really?). I think I would have enjoyed seeing a whole movie devoted to scenes of Magneto jet setting around in the 1960s and hunting down Nazis.

My favorite super hero film was Captain America by a mile. It managed to live up to its source material and tell a compelling self-contained story (unlike Thor, for example) and managed to perk up my interest in anticipation of next summer’s Avengers film all at the same time.

My actual favorite genre film of 2011 is a straight up tie between Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion and Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s The Thing. Contagion is really more of a science thriller than a science fiction film. It’s beautifully shot, directed and edited and it will make you hyper conscious of just how much you touch your own face. It’s the 2001: a Space Odyssey of pandemic films in that it nails the science behind the story so well. Narratively, Contagion plays out a bit like Soderbergh’s war-on-drugs polemic, Traffic, as it’s populated by an ensemble cast of loosely connected characters in different parts of the world who are affected by the outbreak in various ways.

The Thing is something special and something I’ve never seen done on film before. Here’s what I wrote in a Candleblog post that I never published:

Remakes are tricky. The problem is that nobody wants to remake crappy movies — everyone wants to remake classics, which is problematic because the classic films are already great. Remakes have an uphill battle trying to live up to these great original films and few succeed. Go ahead. Try and think of a great remake. The list is really short. Indeed some will  argue that John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing is actually the best remake ever (though technically, Carpenter’s film is not so much  a “remake” of Howard Hawkes’ 1952 classic, The Thing From Another World, as it is a retelling of John Campbell’s science fiction short story, Who Goes There).

Prequels are even trickier. Just ask George Lucas. A successful prequel has to not only stand alone as it’s own film, it has to live up to the quality of the film it’s setting up and it has to do so while explicitly revealing the on-screen actions that led to what may have been merely throw-away backstory elements in the original. Think of all the acrobatic shenanigans Lucas had to go through at the end of Revenge of the Sith to get all the characters in the right places for the beginning of Star Wars — wipe the protocol droid’s memory, but don’t bother with the R2 unit, he seems harmless enough; Bail Organa always wanted a little princess; Yoda is the greatest Jedi master in the galaxy but he dropped his lightsaber once so now he must exile himself to a swamp world, etc.

Keep these issues in mind as you watch Matthijs van Heijningen’s new version of The Thing, because this film has done something I think no other film has ever done: it’s both a successful remake and a successful prequel. It achieves the goals of both.

I wouldn’t change a word of that. Van Heijningen made a film that is a loving tribute to the original, recreating the basic plot, tension and (nearly) specific scenes of Carpenter’s iteration. The characters’ names and faces are different, but the monster is the same, the setting is essentially the same, and up until the film’s final moments, the basic narrative is the same, as the eponymous Thing picks off the ice station crew members one by one. So it works as a remake of Carpenter’s film, but it’s also a very specific prequel — so meticulously crafted that an uninitiated viewer watching the films back to back might think they were made at the same time. And despite the perfect attention to detail spent getting all of the various pieces in place for the start of Carpenter’s film, almost none of it feels forced or tacked-on (one exception being the ice station crew member who commits suicide by cutting his own throat, just to establish one shot in the 1982 film). I’m hoping van Heijningen has started a trend and that Ridley Scott’s Prometheus will be the next example of this sort of film.

Honorable mention: Attack the Block.

Special Worst Genre Film of 2011 Award: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (see my review here)

I’m a terribly slow reader so my best-of list of genre books will be short. I recently finished Stephen King’s 11/22/63, which is part time travel adventure, part historical fiction and part romance, none of which immediately strike me as Stephen King genres. It’s a great yarn but the SF nerd in me kept asking needling questions about the mechanics of time travel that King never bothered to answer.

Speaking of time travel adventures and historical fiction, my favorite SF book of 2011 was Connie Willis’ All Clear, which was part two of a two-part story begun last year (the first part was called Blackout). These books are set in my favorite of Willis’ universes (visited before in Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog) in which our heroes journey from the time-traveling future of Oxford, England circa 2060 to various points during WWII and then get stuck there.

On my bookshelf now, waiting to be read next are two other 2011 publications, Neil Stephenson’s REAMDE and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Those will have to wait for my 2012 year-in-review post.

Game of Thrones
is the obvious 2011 champion of genre TV. It’s loving devotion to the source material is inspiring and it’s slow-burn storytelling is something I’d like to see more of on TV. Matt Zoller Seitz (one of the best TV writers working now, IMO) described the second half of GoT season one as “The Godfather with swordplay and dragon’s eggs.” Yup. It’s that good.

2011 was also the year my wife and I finally caught up with Fringe and I can safely say that seasons two and three of that show comprise some of the finest SF TV I’ve ever seen.

I should also mention that SyFy’s version of Being Human turned out to be surprisingly good. (As good at the BBC version? Opinions vary.) Falling Skies is the show V really should have been and Walking Dead had a marginally better season than last year.

I couldn’t do a year-end round up of genre TV for 2011 without mentioning the insipid and blisteringly stupid NBC show, The Cape. Cancellation is too good for this turd. Every copy must be destroyed.

I should mention at the outset that I am not a fan of RPG video games. I like my RPGs the classic way — with dice. I mention this because Skyrim does not top my 2011 list, nor does it even make an appearance. I played a little bit of Oblivion once and let’s just say it doesn’t matter how much better Skyrim is, I’m not going to play it.

I did, however, spend a few too many hours playing LA Noir from Rockstar Games. I’m a sucker for anything even vaguely GTA-related and LA Noir is like GTA in 1940s LA, only you have to question witnesses. If you play it, do it in B&W. It was designed to be played that way and it really adds to the experience.

Dead Island had the best video game trailer of the year, for sure. Game play is your standard zombie romp, but set in a beautiful tropical locale.

The best video game of 2011 for me was Portal 2. I actually finished it (I rarely actually complete video game stories). It one-ups the brilliant original in two important ways: first, it expands on the physics, introducing new ways to navigate the crazy puzzles that are just as fun as the stuff in the first game; and second, the story is greatly expanded, including a compelling back story, new characters (Wheatly FTW!) and some of the funniest writing in any genre of any storytelling medium this year.

I wanted to include a best-of comics section in this post but I read so few comics this year it just wouldn’t be worth a damn. But I’ll take the opportunity to plug my friend Alex’s excellent SF romance webcomic, Artifice. I’ll make it a New Year’s resolution to read more comics in 2012.

I had some pretty great nerdy real-life experiences this year too. In Austin in March during SXSW I saw Harry Knowles from Ain’t It Cool News interview Guillermo del Toro about horror/fantasy movies on the stage of the Paramount Theater. Also at SXSW, I caught a couple of podcast tapings of Doug Loves Movies, featuring Simon Pegg, director James Gunn (Slither, Super), Rain Wilson, Dave Foley, Kevin Pollack and others. That was pretty great. I also saw They Might Be Giants play a show with Jonathan Coulton on a beautiful late summer evening in Norwich, VT. I interviewed biologist Craig Venter for a magazine article last January. Venter is the guy who created “artificial DNA” in a laboratory and was on the team that first sequenced the human genome. And my wife Emily’s knitted creations got some podcast and twitter love from the Nerdist himself, Chris Hardwick.

I’m sure 2012 will be even nerdier. The Myans predicted it! See you next year.