“Utterly Compelling”: The Most Mesmerising SF Movie You’ve Never Seen!

And man exists to create… great art

stalker

“The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise, it will punish” – Stalker.  

In the annals of modern cinema, it would appear that while people flock to watch ninja mutant turtles, some of the finest celluloid masterpieces lie neglected somewhere. This is the story of one such near-forgotten treasure.

Having savoured many fine SF delights in my time, complacent enough to believe that all the good movies, books and comics have been well and truly devoured, every so often – out of the blue –it is still possible to be struck by a bolt of absolute, unparalleled brilliance. On a few occasions, the above still – a mysterious yet overpoweringly cool image – has been seen. Frustratingly, there were never any revealing captions to reveal what it was or from whence it came. But then, just a fortnight ago, while searching for something else – isn’t that always the way? – a piece of music, in fact, my eyes caught this pic in a Youtube Suggestions box (of all places).

Eureka!

The name: “Stalker” did not mean anything to me. The 5-minute track which accompanied the pic, listed as “Meditation” was composed by Edward Artemiev, who provided the score for the Russian movie: Solaris, a widely revered masterpiece of World Cinema. It is a fantastic hypnotic piece of music (now played daily, even swirling around inside my headphones this very moment as the keyboard is battered relentlessly).

And the search to find the movie was on!

stalker claustrodon't go anywhere

^ Trying to enter the Zone through gritty monochrome back streets (l) and then finding “the quietest place in the world” (r)

“A vast prose-poem on celluloid whose forms and ideas were to be borrowed by moviemakers like Lynch and Spielberg” – Peter Bradshaw.

Stalker – directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, a stalwart of Soviet cinema – tells how a meteorite supposedly crashed in the USSR many years ago and the authorities cordoned off the area, labelling it: “the Zone.” Whoever went in to investigate the truth were never seen again; rumours spread that normal laws of physics did not exist there, and deep within this Zone, there was the Room, a special place where people’s innermost wishes and desires can come true. Despite being forbidden to enter, countless souls yearned to find out what the Room has to offer.

Enter the Stalkers: special guides who – for a price, of course – can help the curious avoid the traps and take them to the Room. Here, the Stalker (played by Alexander Kaidanovsky) agrees to take two clients, known only as Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and Professor (Nikolai Grinko) into this restricted area. The rest of the film concentrates on these unlikely adventurers infiltratingand exploring the Zone, but more importantly, can they find the Room, and are they prepared mentally to enter it?

Chillingly, the Stalker himself describes the Zone as “the quietest place in the world.” In one interview, Tarkovsky suggested that the Zone did not exist, and was a figment of Stalker’s imagination. Whatever the truth behind this most beguiling of enigmatic plot devices, the film’s uncanny yet subtle ability to twist the minds of more discerning cinema-goers remains undiminished.

stalker tanksstalker writer

^ Abandoned features of the Zone (l) and realising they have lost the Professor and are lost themselves (r)

“Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic inquiry into freedom and faith presents an arduous journey for the spectator, but conjures up its own mystical universe with majestic conviction” – Total Film.

Upon its release in 1979, critics – in awe of its “raw emotional impact” and “multi-layered visual resonance” – discussed Stalker endlessly, trying to derive real meaning from the seemingly ambiguous images and dialogue. Not until 1986, and the frightening calamity of the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl did it all come together. Suddenly, the eerie wasteland, the abandoned tanks, the cobweb-ridden bushes and all the desolate lifeless features made startling sense.

Stalker is described as an art film, which means that the first 37 minutes are in gritty monochrome. As the trio travel into the core of the Zone (by rail), colour appears, but it’s fairly muted – most notably, the overgrown grass appears to have a greyish tint; and there are long atmospheric panning shots of bygone artefacts of past lives strewn in shallow water. If the subtitles on my copy are reliable, then it can be confidently stated that the dialogue is a joy to read, consisting mainly of enriching and poetic lines. The screenplay was written by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, loosely based on their own novel: “Roadside Picnic”.

Behind the indomitable legend lies an unbearable legacy. As filming took place near a disused chemical plant outside Tallinn, Estonia, the toxic surroundings would eventually catch up with members of the cast and crew. To compound the hazards, the original film stock was ruined and all scenes had to be reshot. Talk about double exposure

The actor who played Writer: Anatoli Solonitsyn died of cancer, while Tarkovsky himself succumbed to cancer just months after the Chernobyl disaster occurred, but at least their contributions to the art of World Cinema will forever be honoured. In a recent poll, members of the BFI voted it Second Greatest Movie (behind Blade Runner); on the Rotten Tomatoes movie website, it holds a perfect 100%.

stalker dogwriter solonitsyn

^ So many iconic images to choose from; note the religious connotations (r)

“Every single frame of the film is burned into my retina” – Cate Blanchett.  

To what extent does science feature in this languid fiction? Other than allusions to that meteorite, and the dubious promise of otherworldly powers, there is actually very little to tie this film with an SF tag. Essentially, it works as a meditative psychological drama, and with some hypnotic long and lingering shots, meticulously framed by Tarkovsky, this makes for a rewarding visual feast.

Crucially, the film skilfully incorporates the age-old science vs religion dilemma, with Stalker instilling his faith in the Zone, while his two companions represent the cynical intellect of restless enquiring minds. As they trudge ever closer to the Room, the moods of all three become more agitated and introspective…

It has been said that Solaris is the Soviet 2001. A similar comparison can certainly be given to Stalker. Clarke and Kubrick deliberately set out to raise more questions, rather than provide answers with their powerful yet perplexing masterpiece, and that is most definitely what Tarkovsky strived to accomplish with this majestic and metaphorical work. As for its notoriously plodding pace, there was never a dull moment to be had.

While Writer and Professor experience nothing in the Zone except silence and emptiness, those attributes are precisely what compel Stalker – otherwise burdened with a jobless and hopeless existence – into this area time and time again.

Lastly, it seems quite clear to me that not only does the Zone exist, we make of it what we will because, ultimately, each and every one of us desires such a special place into which we can escape, find solace and be alone with our thoughts.

ctankep

Honestly, how – and why! – has Brad been deprived of this classic for so long?

 

 

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Outer Space, Outta Bounds: Why You Wouldn’t Want To Go Interstellar!

They all wanna see Buck Rogers and that’s us!

If you don't succeed, try and try again!
If you don’t succeed, try and try again!

“I’ll tell you, being involved in human space flight, it is an emotional endeavour. I think it brings in the highest highs and the lowest lows” – Ellen Ochoa.   

As SF literature has consistently featured the marvel of manned space flight, movies have repeatedly revealed how dangerous and downright foolhardy such spacebound ventures can be. So with a revival of manned space exploration announced by NASA back in 2004, not surprisingly, scientists greeted the news with disdain, knowing all-too-well what dangers will lie in store for the new wave of unsuspecting space invaders.

Just look at the record of celluloid space flight: an embarrassing catalogue of disaster, danger, bad news and overacting. It is most notable that the most optimistic predictions of one of science’s greatest visionaries: Arthur C. Clarke fell short when it came to the enlightening subject of humankind’s journey to the stars. No doubt his predictions of humans landing on Mars – by 1994, and then by 2010 – were severely offset by the Apollo 13 crisis, and the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

Who would be a Space Hero? 

You have to ask yourself: if given the chance – knowing how far unmanned space probes have already travelled and how much data they have accumulated, while manned space missions will be way too costly – would you still want to venture into space?  

The latter stages of the Apollo space program yielded very little of scientific value to our knowledge of space, so – bearing in mind that clearly defined objectives should be set out well in advance – what use/benefits would these new missions strive to achieve?

Anybody know what the inflight movie is?
Anybody know what the inflight movie is?

“This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it” – H.A.L. 9000.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) featured the first manned mission to Jupiter, but the Discovery was at the mercy of the shifty computer: HAL 9000. There is no more lonely, frightening experience than being stuck outside your own ship (without helmet) and trying to reason with a machine that refuses to open the pod bay doors…

A year later, the movie Marooned told the story of three astronauts trapped in orbit when they lose control of their vessel. A fourth man goes up in an untried craft to try and rescue them; it gained an Oscar for its special effects.

Too much time, but no space
Too much time, but no space

“You know, when Apollo 17 landed on the Moon, people were calling up the networks and bitching because reruns of I Love Lucy were cancelled. Reruns, for Christ’s sake!” – Dr. James Kelloway.

Capricorn One (1978) was a taut and compelling conspiracy thriller about a hoax manned mission to Mars. Just before launch, the three-man crew are advised to evacuate their rocketship and informed that they had faulty equipment. In order to save the space program (especially its funding), the reluctant astronauts have to act out the Martian landing at a remote studio in the desert. But then they realise that in order to make this phoney show convincing, they will have to be bumped off, so they make good their escape. Despite going separate ways, they are hunted down by mysterious pursuers in black…

See how dangerous it is? Especially when you consider that none of these guys even got off the ground for cryin’ out loud!

Galactic hero Kevin Bacon
Galactic hero Kevin Bacon

“We just put Sir Isaac Newton in the driver’s seat” – Jim Lovell.

Eventually we come to the movie: Apollo 13 (1995), based on the actual drama that unfolded in 1971. Interestingly, for the synopsis, refer to Marooned; however, in this case, there was no rescue vessel. Jim Lovell and his crew-mates – along with Mission Control – had to work out how they would make it back in one piece.

You’d think that having the legendary Intergalactic Hero Kevin Bacon onboard would be enough to ensure boundless good fortune for any mission, but no, they had to be lumbered with Bill Paxton, the only movie star to be killed off by both Predator and Alien…

Before this far-reaching, but near-missing, Post blasts off into the hyperspace of the Blogosphere, it should be said that in the forthcoming SF thriller: Interstellar a wormhole will be tested to find out if the next stage of space travel can be reached. Considering how none of the above examples made it through without any major difficulties, all that can be said here is:

“Good luck with that!”

 

The Expandables: The Age Of The Franchise

Intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action and some mild language

attack of th sequels

“Sequels are like safety nets for studios and investors; they consistently deliver the most potent box-office punch” – Jeff Bock.

In a galaxy too close for comfort, it seems like too many people are getting overexcited about the looming threat of Star Wars Episode VII. Apart from subjecting impressionable younglings to the bamboozlement of Roman numerals, how will popular culture cope? Moreover, what good will it do for the already franchise-infested movie industry?

Yes, place the emphasis on industry – it really has got to the stage where movie-making has become a bustling business where umpteen gazillions of dollars are pumped into the objective of making bigger and better sequels – using the same characters (and actors), fights/car chases/Stan Lee cameos (tick appropriate box), effects, gimmicks and humour to avoid taking any creative risks. As evidenced by this year’s crop of X-Men, Twansfoamers (no, altering the spelling doesn’t ease the pain) and Planet of the Apps (ha!) sequels of sequels assuredly retain the financial stability of the modern movie-making madhouse.

Traditionally, cinema-goers have been perturbed by what came to be labelled: “sequelitis,” and movie critics habitually scoffed at them, decrying them as mere substitutes for creativity and originality. Look out: the new brand of sequels are the harbingers of that commodity of ingenuity; instead of railing against them, we should embrace them.

Here’s how – and why…

winter soldier

“We are not really talking about sequels any more. We are talking about films that are conceived of as longer plays than one film” – David Hancock, Screen Digest.  

Essentially, movies are now concocted within a certain franchise template, specifically designed to outperform its predecessors. Plus, a particular narrative is dispersed throughout numerous instalments, and having familiar faces and safe-bet material saves a fortune in carving out new publicity strategies. Accept it: gone are the days when sequels seemed tagged on primarily to snap up some more dosh, and lacked the surprise and originality of their predecessor. Now continuity is the key – production of the official follow-up can start even before the original has been released!

Just take Captain America as a prime example. Captain America: The First Avenger was a really good film; yet earlier this year: Captain America: The Winter Soldier accumulated a mighty $715 million dollars because it set out (rather skilfully, thankfully) to expand and vastly improve its material. Naturally enough, no prizes for guessing that Cap 3 is sure to be with us shortly…

Just as Guardians of the Galaxy can be rightly celebrated as the crowning triumph of the summer, offering a simple fun formula of material not used heretofore, but then, before you can nab an Infinity Stone, the rush of fizzy refreshing originality is swiped aside momentarily by the slightly unnerving inevitability of the sequel. You saw the message at the end: they will return. This came as no surprise to me. It was preordained, betcha.

Yet there was also the probability of the movie turning out to be the next (ahem) Howard The Duck… and that’s the point.

Nobody (generally) likes to take risks in Hollywood.

Business is business…

The original can be really cool!
The original can be really cool!

eddie joneseddie joneseddie jones

^ but make it again… and again… without changing key elements, it becomes boring and nobody will want to watch any more…

 

“Sigourney and I have a long creative history, dating back to 1985 when we made Aliens. We’re good friends who’ve always worked well together, so it just feels right that she’s coming back for the Avatar sequels” – James Cameron.  

No one ever dies in science fiction – this should not take anyone aback. Despite the departure of Grace Augustine from that $2.7 billion behemoth of 2009, fan-fave Sigourney Weaver confirms that she will feature in ALL THREE sequels(!) Her other great character: Ripley, was cloned.

Even Spock – who sacrificed himself at the end of the best Star Trek movie – was, by some absolutely ludicrous plot-device, brought back to ruin the next “grand” episode of the saga. And… hey! As a perennial favourite, it was only a matter of time before the reboot came along… swiftly  followed by the (some may say) superior sequel…

This system is not unique to the science fiction/fantasy genre but can be applied just as easily to action thrillers and feature-length animated movies too. It would be a futile gesture to call for a boycott against such trash as Transformers, for it has already been decreed that this wretched franchise will lumber on, regardless of what serious cinema-goers want to see.

Bradscribe understands the art of writing a good follow-up, and like all the best-loved franchises, this Post will have…

to be continued...

Who knows, it’ll probably be bigger and better than this one!

Cheers!

 

Killdozer!: The Real Rage Against the Machines

Posted: 22 July 2014

Such cool art - how could the movie be so awful?!
Such cool art – how could the movie be so awful?!

“Why go to a machine when you could go to a human being?” – Ray Bradbury.

Amazingly, when the Review of 2014 comes around, it seems that one of my top accomplishments would actually have been refraining from sitting through the latest incomprehensible and interminably daft Transformers movie. Judging from some utterly horrendous reviews of Michael Bay’s latest epic-drivel, it must stand as a truly wretched experience. Increasing the volume and the running time does not a better movie make, Mr Bay; even when the feeble likes of Shit Lebeef jump ship, then you should know you’ll be going down with a real stinker…   

So, why has it turned out to be such a dud?

As an admirer of traditional SF artwork, the digital conceptual art for this movie looks impressive enough (particularly the cool illo above) but what really makes my blood boil is that yet again, a colossal Summer movie has been unleashed completely devoid of a plot…

…of any kind. Just what blocks are we supposed to be busting here, hmmm?

With special fx at their most sophisticated level available, and an encouraging array of SF writers itching for the chance to produce a box office bonanza (myself included) there is simply no excuse as to why such tosh is still produced.

Maybe it was written and produced by machines…

Isaac-Azimov-Robot-Dreamsundersea kgd

“Film-makers are always going to be… making movies that plug into society around them… after all, it would be sad if we only made films about alien robots” – Mark Boal.

Ever since Karel Capek coined the term: “robot” in R. U. R. (1922), a satire in which artificial men are upgraded to the point that they rebel and replace mankind. Menacing machines and dehumanized societies became all the rage, most notably in Killdozer! 91944) by Theodore Sturgeon and Player Piano (1952) by Kurt Vonnegut. Thus, a concept which gained prevalence in post-war SF happened to be the hybrid of humanand mechanical attributes i.e. the intelligent machine.

The machine-man – or android, if you will – has become a regular staple of popular SF. This theme was further enhanced through Isaac Asimov’s Robot series: I, Robot (1950) and The Rest of the Robots (1964), wherein he introduced the three laws of robotics. Naturally, this review would not be complete without mentioning that seminal classic: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K Dick, which questioned what differences were there between humans and androids; it concluded that the differences between flesh and metal were superseded by the moral judgments which separated benevolent and malevolent beings.   

And yet we shudder to think how Capek, Asimov et al would have reacted to this abysmal mega-bucks toy franchise. Not too favourably, most likely...

So, no intelligent machines here – obviously, this concept does not apply to those big noisy trucks which can turn into best-selling toys. Or whatever.

machine-mansleeper

“The relationship between man and machine is, necessarily, one of the main preoccupations of SF. It is through our machines that we expect to remake tomorrow so that it will be different from today” – Brian Stableford.  

For someone who has glumly fought a losing battle with most-things-technical, the steadfast optimism oozing out of the above quote is slightly off-putting. Honestly, the prospect of coping (in our own lifetimes) with an anthropomorphic machine seems too dire to contemplate. With any luck, it should carry the groceries and fix that strange sound in the pipes, and not have to contend with any Instant Puddings

Is there any good to be gleaned from this rubbish of a movie? Is there any way to keep Michael Bay at bay?

There is no way this Post can end on such negative, pessimistic musings, so will endeavour instead to note that, in the meantime, there is some hope to be found amongst the Summer Blockbuster schedules. The latest instalment of the Planet of the Apes franchise is gaining some promising feedback. Early indications show that our local cineplex IS showing it with the English soundtrack. With any luck, the next Post will cover the Apes franchise, and give me the belated opportunity to marvel at Charlton Heston’s performance from the 1968 original. Now THERE was a star who would NEVER have stooped so low to appear in a movie based on a range of toys!

Outstayed their welcome...
Outstayed their welcome…

at the end of it all

 

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel: At Last!

 

 

Posted: 16 July 2014 

the Grand Budapest is an institution, and Gustave H is the best there is
The Grand Budapest is an institution, and M Gustave is the best there is

“There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity… He was one of them. What more is there to say?” – Zero Moustafa.

At last, dear friends!

Finally managed to catch THE movie all of you were raving about months ago: The Grand Budapest Hotel, that intelligent, whimsical and gloriously off-kilter comedy by one of the true auteurs of modern cinema: Wes Anderson.

Earlier this year, it seemed like only other Bloggers would get to enjoy this instant classic, and my only enjoyment would be limited to reading all your favourable reviews as they relentlessly rolled in. You see, living just two minutes from a sandy beach on the Gulf of Thailand may seem like paradise, but being three hours drive away from civilization i.e. crowded malls with state-of-the-art multiplex cinemas, was only going to be exceedingly difficult. Even the local mall (barely ten years old) just screens the latest mainstream blockbusters DUBBED into Thai (yes folks, you read that correctly) so catching this movie’s impeccable script in its original English soundtrack seemed almost-impossible.

Moreover, bereft of car chases, endless explosions, superheroes and/or Tom Cruise, its chances of obtaining General Release in this part of the world were just like Mr Moustafa’s forename i.e. ‘zero.’  

The accompanying poster – depicting the Hotel’s deightful and pink facade – stared out from every movie website as an almost cruel reminder of how so near – and yet so far – my deprivation had reached…

"And you think I did it!"
“And you think I did it!”

“I can’t think of any other film-maker who brings such overwhelming control to his films… Watching this is like taking the waters in Zubrowka. A deeply pleasurable immersion” – Peter Bradshaw.

The UK is blessed with a wide variety of arthouse cinemas; hopefully, my Summer sojourn in the UK would provide the opportunity to catch up with this classic…

…but alas no, the Grand Budapest had come… and gone already. Curses! Honestly, there was nothing for itbutbreathe a deep sigh of resignation and muster wearily on towards that eventual DVD release date…

Fast forward to this past Monday evening; returning to my Eastern base, taking a flight to Abu Dhabi (of all things) a scan of the programme to see what inflight entertainment was on offer, drew a most pleasant surprise – on the first page, my sore eyes lit up upon catching that poster.

EUREKA!

After many months (and miles) my quest to find the Best Film of 2014 ended at 35,000 feet above Europe, (not exactly over Budapest, alas!) As regular readers will know, most of my viewing of the latest releases has occurred during long-distance flights; it just never occurred to me that this how it would be revealed to me! Having drafted the first notes for this Post in a cafe @ Abu Dhabi International, on the connecting flight to Bangkok a second viewing proved irresistible!  

The range of rich cameos on offer is an absolute treat
The range of rich cameos on offer is an absolute treat

“…I could hear him saying the most ridiculous lines ever. I mean, he’s Ralph Fiennes – you wouldn’t believe he could say such things. It was hilarious and so hard to keep a straight face” –  Tony Revolori.

Grand Budapest is being cited as Wes Anderson’s Most Outstanding Movie (to date). Although an admirer of The Royal Tenenbaums, and absolutely infatuated with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, it could well be a strong contender for that title, for it is not weighed down with the melancholia of those two previous films, but is, instead, imbued with period detail – always a bonus in my book!

A crowning glory of this Eastern European exercise is the range of top quality performances on offer: loved Willem Dafoe in Life Aquatic, so it is good to see him here, even if he does play a despicable cat-flinging bounder! Ed Norton, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody and Jeff Goldblum (looking decidedly Freudian) are particularly good.

Worship Bill Murray, whose career has gained a healthy resurgence through Anderson’s work; his presence here (albeit all-too-brief) as Monsieur Ivan, head of the mysterious Society of the Crossed Keys, is particularly well-appreciated. It’s always fun to watch Owen Wilson in any Wes Anderson film, and it’s amazing how he got included in this – as “Monsieur Chuck” indeed! And to top it all, there is M Gustave, played by “a splendidly rancid and randy” Ralph Fiennes.

The hotel itself is at once both an enchanting and eerie edifice – “a superb cathedral of eccentricity” – with its large and deserted halls, the exquisite matte-painting backdrops and – let’s face it – would it be complete without its lovingly animated wickety funicular?

Even the balalaika-laden soundtrack is delightful.

While we wait for Mr. Anderson to regale us with his next, exquisitely-crafted visual feast, yours truly will endeavour to trawl through the darkest confines of indie movie-making, hoping to track down some other noteworthy underground hits.

Ausfahren!

THAT poster...
THAT poster…

“Take Me To Kepler!”: The Exobiology of HZ Worlds

Drafted: 27 June; Revised: 29 June 2014

The search for exoplanets continues...
The search for exoplanets continues…

“Earth size planets  can and do exist in the HZ ‘s of other stars” – Doud Hudgins, Exoplanet Exploration Program.

Following on from the theme of last week’s Post, the oft-discussed topic of finding habitable worlds in the solar system is never far away. As technology advances, and astronomy becomes a more vital discipline, then the search for such worlds – and their possible inhabitants – gathers even greater pace, with a recent (March 2014) news story excitedly reporting the discovery of exoplanets “by the bus load,” with 1,692 confirmed and 3,845 suspect candidates, bringing the total to over 5,500.

 Incredible, when you consider that the first exoplanet, orbiting within its HZ (habitable zone) – a region around a sun where liquid could be present on the surface, and could contain the elements to support life – was detected only in 1995! The latest: Kepler 186f could be the most probable contender for supporting life due to it being similar in size to Earth; it orbits a red dwarf star 500 light years away.

In addition, two other worlds – 70 Virginis, in the Virgo constellation, & 47 UMa, in Ursa Major, could possess the credentials to support the formation of life, and they are only 35 light years away.

Sorry, but this is what aliens are most likely to resemble...
Sorry, but this is what aliens are most likely to resemble…

“There is nothing special about Earth. If life can arise on one planet around one star in one galaxy, then it could happen on billions of such planets” – Tim Radford.  

The quest for extraterrestrial life has bamboozled terrestrial science (and philosophy) since time immemorial. Lucretius, the Roman philosopher wote about the “seeds of life” floating through space in his: De Rerum Naturae. This concept became known as “Panspermia” and was later discussed by Svante Arhenius (a Swedish Nobel prize-winner) and Sir Fred Hoyle ( a British astronomer). Thomas Jefferson, founding father and president of the United States, speculated about life on other planets, but only about whether they “had souls to be saved.”

Then, with H G Wells, there were aliens – from Mars, our nearest neighbour – but they did not come in peace. In the last century, as science fiction has rocketed (sorry), there has been all sorts of long and short, green and blue, bug-eyed and three-fingered “visitors” from a vast array of weird and wonderful alien worlds.

Everyone is familiar with the five-year mission objective of the original (endearingly daft) Star Trek series but nothing in my vast reams of research can elucidate why so much of that “strange new life” (predominantly carbon-based, of course) had to have weird knobs, crests, and even trilobytes stuck to their foreheads. Gene Roddenberry certainly moved in mysterious ways…

We are finding exoplanets "by the bus load" now
We are finding exoplanets “by the bus load” now

“If there are creatures there they are going to be short and fat, not long and thin like us. They will be more like crabs than sheep and would move by scuttling sideways” – Dr Paul Murdin, British National Space Centre.

Humanoid aliens are so common (not just because of limitations of cheap sfx) but because eyes, mouths and limbs are essential components of any (not all) living organisms. Yet modern exobiologists recognise that carbon, hydrogen and oxygen don’t need to be mandatory building blocks for life; silicon could be vital as well.   

Unfortunately, Science presents us with a less exciting image of aliens. Extraterrestrials – if they are to be found at all – would have to adapt to massive gravity, be of small and very flat shape, with a protective carapace, very much like a limpet. The conditions for complex chemicals to turn into complex self-replicating proteins and then cells have to be precise.

But what triggers those conditions? And where can we find them?  

On a final note, there was an amusing two-page story in Mystery in Space comic (1981) in which first contact is made on a distant planet by three Earth astronauts with a race of green, long-necked tortoise-like creatures. The translator is opened (on all frequencies, of course) and the Commander greets them. No reply; not even a sound. The aliens just ignore them, trudging along the streets of their great city. Dejected, the humans pack up and leave. As their spaceship blasts back into the heavens, one alien turns to his chum and says:

” Thank Drok! I thought they’d never leave!”   

The second alien replies: “Yeah, blasted tourists, who needs ’em?”

Kraken Mare: The Largest Lake of Titan

Posted: 20 June 2014

 

An artist's impression of Kraken Mare on Titan.
An artist’s impression of Kraken Mare on Titan.

“Below the thunders of the upper deep, Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea, His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep, The Kraken sleepeth”  – Tennyson.

Below the piercing orange sky, the massive alien sea gleams. Kraken Mare – named after the fabled monster of Norse legend – is the first stable body of surface liquid discovered off-Earth, and one of the most distinctive awe-inspiring me geographical features of Saturn’s largest moon: Titan.

Having concentrated on science fiction for my previous Posts, here is an irresistible opportunity to cover this distant geological phenomenon. Kraken Mare, Ligeia Mare, (named after one of the Sirens of Greek mythology), and Punga Mare, (named after the Maori ancestor of sharks and lizards) all cluster around Titan’s North Pole.

Aeons ago, a Stars and Planets book (then) reliably informed me that TEN moons orbited Saturn; now, with the amazing advances in astro-exploration and observation, the total, as of this month – stands at a staggering SIXTY TWO! As one of the most amazing wonders of the universe, two other subjects were dropped in order to accommodate this as the main topic of my latest Post.

 

A diagram showing the layout of lakes at Titan's North Pole.
A diagram showing the layout of lakes at Titan’s North Pole.

“…An exotic chemistry that could illuminate the origins of life. Titan could hardly be a more alluring destination. Surely we should be launching a boat to explore its distant shores?” – New Scientist 24 May 2014.

This intriguing episode of interstellar exploration began in March 1997, when the Huygens probe – named after Christiaan Huygens, the 17th century Dutch astronomer who discovered Saturn’s largest moon – was launched on a seven-year voyage to Titan. When Cassini reached Titan in 2004, hopes of finding reflected sunlight from the surfaces of suspected hydrocarbon lakes faded fast. Actually, at the south polar region, a dark expansive feature, which came to be known as Ontario Lacus, was the first lake of Titan to be recognised as such.

The Huygens probe landed near Titan’s equator on 14 January 2005. Although it detected no areas of liquid, a report said it “strongly indicated the presence of liquids in the recent past.” Following analysis of the moon’s surface by a penetrometer, it can be described as a “sand made of ice grains.”

On 22 July 2006, passing over the northern hemisphere, Cassini discovered a collection of large smooth areas covering the surface near the North Pole. The definitive evidence for methane-filled lakes on Titan was announced in January 2007. On 8 July 2009, the Visual & Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) picked up a dramatic specular reflection of what has been identified as Kraken Mare’s southern shoreline. 

In a photo taken in July 2009, sunlight glints off the surface of Kraken Mare
In a photo taken in July 2009, sunlight glints off the surface of Kraken Mare

“Don’t make your surfing vacation reservations for Titan just yet” – Dr Jason Barnes.

Another awesome geographical feature of saturn’s larget moon is known as the “Throat of Kraken”; it forms a narrow strait, similar in scale to the Strait of Gibraltar. With gravity much lower compared to our Earth, and the liquid less dense, the tidal current could cause whirlpools. This is apt, considering the feared Kraken’s reputation for creating whirlpools and devouring whole ships. Yet radar results reveal that Ligeia Mare is “smooth as silk” suggesting that the real Seas of Tranquility are to be found in this sector of the solar system.   

There are plans for a submersible craft to explore the geology, and the chemistry of these lakes; it would be designed to search for organic molecules and measure the isotopic mix of its chemical composition to compile data on how Titan formed and evolved.

In a more poignant twist to this astronomical tale, scientists announced on 13 February 2008, that these polar lakes contains hundreds of times more natural gas and other liquid hydrocarbons than all the oil and natural gas reserves on Earth put together. In addition, they could hold 300 times the volume of Earth’s known oil reserves. This instantly brings to mind a wild SF scenario of mega-companies racing to extract their share of the riches of Titan!

On a final note, we have to wonder how long – or how soonboundless time, money and resources will be swiftly made available to make this science fiction become science fact!