So I went and wrote a book about sci-fi cinema

SF quote


Research. Planning. Pacing up and down. Making cups of coffee. There are lots of processes involved in writing a book besides the obvious bit of sitting stock-still in a chair and typing. One of the trickier aspects, I’d argue, is self-promotion: how many tweets is too many tweets? How many times should I mention the book I need to sell on Facebook without annoying my great aunt Agnes in Australia? Can I afford to have the book’s title emblazoned on the side of a jumbo jet? (The short answer: probably not.)

All of which leads me to the point of this post: I want to tell you about the book I’ve written, but without actually writing the words “please buy my book – you’ll really like it, honest.” It’s also an introduction to a series of short posts, both about the book itself and the process of writing it. If you’ve been thinking about writing a non-fiction book yourself, but haven’t been sure how to go about it, then maybe you’ll find some useful pointers in there.

So first of all, what is The Geek’s Guide To SF Cinema? I’m glad you asked…

The Geek’s Guide To SF Cinema

alienmotherWeighing in at a healthy 272 pages, The Geek’s Guide To SF Cinema explores how the sci-fi genre has helped push filmmaking technology, as well as reflect our hopes and fears. Each of its 30 chapters takes in a key movie from over a century of cinema history, beginning with Georges Méliès’ seminal A Trip To The Moon, and takes an in-depth look at how they were made and the impact they left behind.

A further subchapter then branches out further still, highlighting less familiar films with similar themes and ideas: the chapter on Alien also takes in the best and worst of space horror, from Planet Of The Vampires to the tawdry Inseminoid; from Galaxy Of Terror to the grisly Event Horizon.

The result is, I hope a book that is entertaining yet also invested with plenty of depth; that lays out the case for sci-fi as a vital part of our culture, but does so in a way that even those with a casual interest in the subject can enjoy. It takes in numerous interviews, both past and present, from genre experts, filmmakers and actors, as well as research from dozens of books and yellowing old magazines.

As much as anything else, The Geek’s Guide To SF Cinema is a celebration of some of the most important movies ever made. In writing it, I had in mind the sensation I felt when I was about ten years old and encountering some of these classics for the first time. I still recall the first time I saw Silent Running, when I fell in love with its characters and reeled at its sense of isolation. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers terrified me. Star Wars left me exhilarated.

Those emotions, it seems, are infectious: great genre films create a ripple effect, where the images and ideas of one movie inspire the makers of another, from the early 20th century to the first decades of the 21st.

The Geek’s Guide To SF Cinema is an attempt to describe that ripple effect: more than a century of changing technology, social upheaval and filmmaking ingenuity. Alongside the 30 familiar titles covered within – among them Planet Of The Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner – there are dozens more that might have passed you by, from cold war-era Soviet movies about space exploration to low-budget Mad Max clones.

It’s an exciting, fascinating and sometimes strange journey, taking in obsessive and eccentric filmmakers, pioneering artists and opportunistic producers; classic moments of high-art and cynical slabs of B-movie schlock.

I do hope you enjoy reading The Geek’s Guide To SF Cinema as much as I enjoyed writing it.

The Geek’s Guide To SF Cinema: 30 Key Films That Revolutionised The Genre is out on the 15th February, published by Robinson. It’s available in the UK from Amazon and The Book Depository, in Australia from Dymocks and Amazon and in New Zealand from Mighty Ape.



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Gerard, the resident pheasant


Gerard, on one of his regular skulks outside the kitchen.

The first time we met Gerard was on Christmas day. I was shoving a saucepan in the sink when, looking through the kitchen window, I noticed a little crimson-cheeked head pop up from behind a hedge.

“There’s a pheasant in the garden!” I whispered to Sarah, who was busy putting something in the oven.

“Dinner!,” she said, peering out through the December murk. As we watched, the pheasant wandered closer and closer to the kitchen window, moving its head in little suspicious jerks as it padded down the garden path.

The pheasant was only two feet away from the house when it finally spotted us. With a jolt of surprise, the bird rushed off with a flick of its ginger tail, running back up the garden path and flapping up into a tall conifer.

For weeks before, we’d heard the telltale pop of distant shotguns in the fields behind our house, and the hunting season, we guessed, was why this one, plucky pheasant had headed down to the safety of our garden.

Although understandably shy (I’d be shy too if people in waxed jackets and flat caps kept aiming guns at me all the time), the pheasant’s since become a regular visitor. When we haven’t seen him wandering around the garden, we’ve heard his distinctive cry echoing around the gardens on our terrace. The visits have become so frequent that Sarah has christened the pheasant Gerard.

We’ve been living here for eight months, and I’ve since realised that we’ve inadvertently bought our own miniature nature reserve. Aside from Gerard, we’ve seen mallard ducks, voles, woodpeckers (spotted and green), buzzards, rabbits, herons, doves, jays, and a mangy rat approximately the size of a greyhound.

The ducks come in a pair – I think they’re husband and wife – and have a strange tendency to sit on top of our dilapidated summer house (really a just a shed with glazed French doors) and admire the view. Once, I caught the man duck (known to science as a drake, I’m told) keeping watch while Mrs Duck took a morning bath in our ornamental water feature-type-thing.


Mrs Duck emerging from the ornamental water feature-type-thing after her morning bath.

When Mr Duck spotted me, he let out an urgent “quack” to his wife, and Mrs Duck hopped out, shook herself dry, and led the escape up the garden path.

Gerard’s definitely my favourite garden visitor. Even though he’s nervous around humans, he still comes down to the kitchen quite often. Up close, you can appreciate how bright his feathers are; his cheeks are a vivid crimson, the rest of his head a shiny emerald. He wears a stylish white collar around his neck, and the mottled feathers on his body appear to be flecked with gold when the sun catches them. His long, copper-coloured tale completes the ensemble.

With an outfit like this, it’s hardly surprising that pheasants are so cheerfully shot at – on a grey winter’s day, they might as well have a big target painted across their back.

Another reason why pheasants get shot: they’re absolutely terrible at playing hide and seek.

Blearily stumbling into the kitchen one morning to make a cup of tea, I spotted Gerard skulking around in a withered flower bed just outside the window (again). At exactly the same moment, Gerard’s permanently bewildered amber eyes met mine. Rather than attempt to fly away, he sort of slumped to the ground, his body flattening out as though the air were slowly seeping out of his feathers. All the while, his round eyes remained fixed on me, and he just lay there, a few wisps of foliage covering his beak and wings.

Gerard, being rubbish at hiding.

Gerard, being rubbish at hiding.

Gerard remained in this awkward, flattened position for several minutes, until I got bored and turned around to get a teabag out of a cupboard. This, clearly, was Gerard’s opportunity to initiate Operation Leg It, and he went dashing off back up the garden.

(For some reason, Gerard only flies when he absolutely has to – usually in the evening, when he’ll flap up into a tree, let out his “ka-krarr” call before turning in.)

Gerard’s habit of standing around on hedges and fences, calling into the winter air, left me wondering whether he was pining for some long-lost lover. And one day, shortly after winter had finally given way to spring, a female pheasant started appearing in our neighbour’s garden.

Since then, Gerard and Josephine (as we’ve called her) have taken turns in their visits to our kitchen window. Yesterday, Josephine came strolling down, peered around, pecked at a few things and cleared off again.

Today, Gerard paid another visit, and I’ve noticed that he’s become far more brazen since Josephine arrived. He swaggers around now, inspecting things like a king surveying his estate. I’ve seen him looking through the window of our conservatory, seemingly thinking, “Not bad. I think I’ll buy it.”

He’s also more territorial. I recently saw him walk past the summer house, catch sight of his reflection in the glass door and give it a testy jab with his beak. He stood there for a moment, staring motionlessly at himself, perhaps wondering why the other pheasant wasn’t moving either. Then he started walking around in a semi-circle, nonchalantly, as though trying to lull the reflection pheasant into a fall sense of security before… pow! He whipped around and charged full pelt at the French door, neck out straight, beak forward like a lance.

With a hollow “clonk”, Gerard bounced off the glass and staggered backwards, dazed.


Gerard, glowering at his own reflection.

Giving the reflection pheasant a reproachful look, Gerard retreated to next door’s garden, where Josephine was hanging around in the morning sun.

I can imagine the story Gerard might have told Josephine. How there was a rival pheasant in his land next door, with less vibrant feathers than his. How he bravely challenged the other pheasant to a duel, and after giving him a demonstration of his superior jousting skills, the rival bird fled, and if he knows what’s good for him, he’ll never come back.

Josephine would probably have just nodded, too polite to explain that he’d wasted the entire morning picking fights with his own reflection.

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15 horrifying incidental things from the original Star Wars trilogy

artooOn the surface, George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy was a breezy, good-natured space opera where farm boys can save the galaxy and good ultimately triumphs over evil.

But consider its darker underbelly: the giant worms lurking in asteroids. The energy-sucking parasites lurking inside the giant worms lurking in the asteroids. The torture. The flesh-eating bears. The uncles and aunts burned to death on their own door steps.

The sheer mind-boggling hideousness of it all.

You can read the full piece at Den Of Geek.

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25 years of Tim Burton’s Batman: a pivotal superhero movie

batman-01Can it really be 25 years since Batman appeared in cinemas? I can still just about recall that giddy summer of Batmania: the t-shirts, the lunch boxes, the adverts on television. I can still remember queuing up to see it,  breathlessly excited. Already a fan of the Caped Crusader thanks to the old Adam West series, I’d begun reading the comics around that time (I particularly liked Detective Comics) and still have the ‘Official Comic Adaptation Of The Warner Bros Motion Picture’, which cost me £1.50 in 1989. I still have it sitting by my desk.

Before and right up to its release, Tim Burton’s Batman was a media event with a capital ‘e’. I was swept up by it, and loved everything about the movie at the time.

Yet the reaction from the public and certain sections of the press towards Michael Keaton’s casting as Bruce Wayne was bordering on the toxic before filming even began, and in the early part of 1989, Warner pushed back with an equally aggressive – and ultimately successful – marketing campaign of its own. Batman ultimately stood and won as the defining superhero movie of the 80s, and its tone, advertising and structure still influences comic book movies even today.

The power zeitgeist-y of Burton’s Batman was such that it was the story surrounding its pre-release controversy and subsequent hype that became the focus of my 25th anniversary article.

The movie itself is still a thrilling one, even if it is, inevitably, a product of its time: loud, brash, yet iconoclastic, playful and as subversive Burton could get away with in a colossal studio picture. But, for me, the story surrounding Batman’s release was more interesting than a straight critique of the plot.

Here, long before the internet, was a battle for the hearts and minds of a suspicious and vocal audience – Burton and Warner Bros had to fight an uphill battle to convince their public that Batman 1989 wouldn’t be a pun-laden, camp exercise along the 60s TV series’ lines. How fascinating, then, that the film itself is about a battle via media: Bruce Wayne’s efforts to use newspapers and TV to sell himself as a mythical being in the shape of a bat, and The Joker’s toxic-narcissist attempts to upstage him with a PR campaign of his own.

Burton played fast and loose with the history laid out in the comic books in the process – something few filmmakers would get away with now – but he dug into the psyches of his hero and villain in a way that would become standard practice in later years. The result was a pivotal superhero movie.

You can read the full article on Den Of Geek here. 

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25 years of the PC Engine

ImageIn the late 80s and 90s, when the term ‘arcade perfect’ was used with abandon, the PC Engine quickly acquired an almost mythical status. In both magazines and in the corners of playgrounds, there were whispers that this Japanese wonder console (purportedly the first 16-bit system on the market) was capable of running a pixel-for-pixel port of the legendary shooter R-Type.

That the PC Engine wasn’t even officially available in the UK merely added to its enigma. Full-page adverts appeared in videogame magazines such as Ace, which showed the PC Engine’s tiny, seductive case – a 140mm square slab of plastic that, to this day, remains the smallest home console yet devised – and screenshots of R-Type. From those images, it really did look like it might be that rarest of things: an arcade-perfect conversion.

Looking back, it’s easier to cut through the hype. The PC Engine wasn’t 16-bit at all (its processor was 8-bit), and while the port of R-Type was excellent, you had to buy it on two separate cartridges, and the sprites flickered when too many appeared on the screen.

In spite of this, there’s still something truly magical about the PC Engine. Part of this is probably down to nostalgia; back then, grey imports of Japanese consoles and games was extraordinarily expensive, so owning one would have been out of the question for all but the most dedicated or wealthy of UK gamers.

Even now, though, there remains  something intimate and neat about the PC Engine’s design. The wafer-thin cartridges, which come enshrouded in little plastic sleeves and sold in CD jewel cases. The rounded joypad, which is slightly larger and more pleasant to handle than its contemporaries, such as the NES or Sega Master System.

Then there were the games, which were an arcade fanatic’s dream. There were system-exclusive shooters, such as Gunhed and Soldier Blade. There was BC Kid and its sequels, which rank among some of the best platformers of the era. There were some fantastic coin-op conversions, such as Galaga 88, Gradius, Operation Wolf and Image Fight. Purchase the relevant multi-tap dongle, and you could enjoy four-player Bomberman.

A joint venture between the hardware manufacturer NEC and Hudson Soft, the PC Engine was a great success when it launched in Japan on the 30th October 1987. Released a year before Sega’s rival Mega Drive, and three years before the Super Nintendo, the PC Engine made rival hardware look dated indeed.

Unfortunately, NEC was slow to capitalise on the console’s support at home, and didn’t launch the PC Engine until the summer of 1989 in North America. By then, Sega’s aggressive Mega Drive (or Genesis) campaign was already clicking into gear, and the Super Nintendo’s release was just around the corner.

Although NEC released several iterations of the PC Engine to keep pace, including a CD-Rom drive and even two handheld versions, a lack of third-party support from developers saw the console’s fortunes gradually dwindle until its production finally ceased in the mid-90s.

For a while there, though, the PC Engine shone brightly, selling 10 million units worldwide and amassing a library of around 287 games.

Even today, the PC Engine is still collected, prized and talked about in reverential tones. There are fantastic sites such as this the PC Engine Software Bible, and its games are keenly collected, largely by people like me, who remember those full-page magazine ads with misty-eyed affection.

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The pissed off terrapins of Los Angeles

The plane descends through blue skies and cloud wisps. I’ve left the early autumn chill of the UK far behind, and I’m about to touch down in LA, the land of movies. The home of Hollywood, film stars, startling excess and, I later learn, pissed off terrapins. It’s late September, and I’m here to capture the hum of pre-release hype for Tron: Legacy, Disney’s revival of its almost 30-year-old computer age adventure movie.

It’s my first time in the land of the free, and I’m both excited and apprehensive. Excited at the prospect of seeing this sprawling place for myself, having grown up with images of US life since childhood, but at the same time I’m nervous that, as a dweller of villages and provincial towns, I’d somehow become swallowed up, lost forever in this cavernous republic.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles viewed from the Hollywood Hills

I learn, as I spend almost two hours waiting to go through security and then a further forty minutes having my passport checked once again at the exit, that the land of the free has quietly morphed into the land of the paranoid.

Before I flew, I filled in my visa form online, which asked if I’d been a Nazi between the years 1938-1945, if I’d ever been convicted for the kidnapping of a minor, or whether I’d ever been to prison for making explosives. Then I filled in another form on the plane, where I certified that I wouldn’t attempt to smuggle any kind of deadly bacilli, raw meat, vegetables or snails onto US soil.

Having sat patiently on the hulking 747, an upended conning tower stuffed full of chairs and blankets, I staggered blearily into Los Angeles airport to be met with an unending conga line of the defeated and exhausted. This was homeland security, where each luckless traveller had to present their passport and various forms, before having various parts of their anatomy scrutinised, photographed and scanned.

After nearly 100 minutes of waiting in line, during which I listened to the bizarre ramblings of an Irishman who may or may not have been insane, I had the four fingers on my right hand scanned, then my right thumb. Then the four fingers on my left hand, then my left thumb. I then had my eyes scanned.

What do they do with this information? If one of the vast number of people streaming through LA’s turnstiles every day ultimately proved to be a mass murderer of some description, what purpose would a scan of their fingers and eyes serve?

But let me rewind a little bit, and return to the Irishman. Cheerfully corpulent, with ice cream hair and varifocal spectacles, he had a gentle, avuncular but only fitfully intelligible accent. At first, I thought I was mishearing what he was saying, as each utterance became more outlandish than the last.

First, he talked enthusiastically of his hatred for the Scottish. “They’re racist,” he said, with not a suspicion of irony. Then he talked about the castle he renovated, which had twenty rooms.

He told me of the magnet technology he and his company had invented, of the saucer-like, wingless aircraft he’d designed. It was revolutionary, he said. “Didn’t Skoda design one in World War II?” I asked. He hotly denied this.

Then he talked about an electric car he owned that was worth 800 million dollars (though, again, I’m sure I must have misheard this), a vehicle that had only driven for thirty miles before breaking down. This he followed with his list of houses: a flat in Wimbledon, another in Scotland, others in Europe and the US. And the castle? Sold, he said.

“But just because I’ve got all these houses and plenty of money, doesn’t make me special,” he said. “I still talk to ordinary people. Like you.”

While I stood wondering at this man’s extraordinary tales – and weighing up the possibility of asking him to lend me some money – it suddenly dawned on me that he’d somehow sidled in front of me in the queue. Part of me was incensed, but an ancient, working-class synapse in my brain fired and told me to wring my flat cap and let it go. He did own a castle, after all.

The Irishman had, between his tall tales, repeatedly told me that I probably wouldn’t be allowed through security, as I hadn’t printed my ESTA ticket. I replied that I’d paid for one, but simply hadn’t printed the receipt out – it’s all electronic now, isn’t it?

Having sneaked in front of me in the queue, he walked up to the security desk. But instead of having his fingers, thumbs and eyes scanned, the man behind the counter shook his head, and pointed to another queue some five miles away on the other side of the building. I’ve no idea what was said, but the Irishmen shuffled off quietly, until he was a mere dot on the horizon.

An hour later, and I’m out of the wretched airport, and blinking in the California sunshine. The air lies like a blanket, thick and almost unbreathable. I later learn that LA is in the grip of a heat wave, and that it’s roughly 35 degrees.

I slump into a taxi – a yellow taxi, like Travis Bickle may have driven – and notice that it’s a Tardis in reverse. Vast on the outside, cramped on the inside. As apparently huge and ungainly as US cars are, they appear to be all bonnet and trunk – there’s less room for the knees in here than in the back of a Peugeot 205.

The driver – terse, sunglasses, the spit of Cheech Marin – drives like the forces of hades are at his heels. We hurtle between lanes, weaving in and out of Oldsmobiles, Chevrolet Corvettes (there are dozens of them here, all white) and lumpen SUVs. We approach red lights so quickly that it feels as though Cheech is thinking of jumping them, but then chooses the final terrifying second to change his mind.

American cars are as spongy and nautical as the movies would have you believe. Every petulant jab at the brakes from Cheech’s size six feet sends the taxi pitching forward, affording a glimpse of tarmac that fills the windscreen, before the vehicle flops back on its heels, providing a glimpse of clear blue sky.


It really is searingly hot. I look out of the window at streets that look like movie sets. There are stadium sized shops devoted to Halloween outfits, tiny Psychic parlours, fast food joints I’ve never seen, or at least was only dimly aware of: Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Jack In The Box. Women push shopping trolleys filled with tin cans (I thought this only happened in Death Wish movies) joggers huff through brutal California heat, their brows weeping with grief.

We hurtle past Electronic Arts, the video game publishing giant, whose building looks like the one Arnold Schwarzenegger blew up in Terminator 2. In fact, everywhere looks like Terminator 2. It appears that James Cameron simply turned up in LA with an Austrian, a small boy and a video camera, and recorded the thing like a documentary.

Forty minutes, thirty dollars and eight near-misses later, and we’ve arrived at the Sheraton Hotel in Santa Monica. Like all hotels, it’s not as good as it looks on the website, but there’s marble in the lobby, and Cheech could have parked his taxi in the lift.

My room is pleasant, in that beige, Stepford bedsit sort of way, and has air-con. It also has a television hidden in a big faux-mahogany cabinet, which isn’t something I’ve seen in over two decades.

A television. In a cabinet. In 2010.

American television is extraordinary. The ratio of advertisements to programme content is skewed heavily towards the former, to the point where it’s not clear what the programme between the adverts is even after twenty minutes’ viewing.

Thankfully, the adverts are like nothing I’ve ever seen. Adverts for pieces of plastic that save space in your closet. Five minute commercials about pressure washers. Anti-smoking advisories with big poisonous spiders.

Then the weather. It’s only now that I realise how extraordinarily accurate Steve Carrell’s turn as a weather man was in Anchorman. It wasn’t crass comedy, but an astutely observed docu-drama. The chap on KTLA (or KGB, or something) is warning of the possibility of flash fires and widespread death with the breezy off-handedness you’d expect from someone reporting mild rain.

Later, I meet with my fellow writers and friendly PR people, and we eat dinner at a dimly-lit Mexican restaurant. I ask for the marinated beef, and receive a platter of unidentifiable things which were various shades of grey, brown and green. Beneath the beef lay something that appeared to be pickled lizard skin, or perhaps a shower hat. I don’t know what it was, but it didn’t taste of much. In fact, nothing tasted of anything. The black beans were like textured water, the beef as chewy as a dog lead. I love Mexican food, but this was like eating a fax of a meal rather than the real thing – grey, chewy and as bland as an Ikea funeral.

It’s at this point that, if we were characters in a movie, we’d all be getting hideously drunk – there are approximately a dozen hacks, writers and bloggers here from all over the place (Russia, Mexico, France, Germany, the UK), and for most of us, it’s our first visit to America. Surely, we should all be drinking cocktails in one of those LA clubs I’ve read so much about.

Instead, we head to Santa Monica beach, now under cover of darkness, where something called a Glow Festival is in full swing. Or we assume it’s in full swing – it’s little more than a group of people standing in the blackness holding a glowstick. Where’s the hedonism? Where are the drugs? Defeated, we headed back to the hotel.

* * *

Sunday morning. Breakfast arrives at my door, which consists of two fried eggs, two pencil-thin sausages and a pile of something that I later learn is yam. The eggs are undercooked, and still have the unmistakable consistency of phlegm. The yam is more colourful to look at than eat – it’d look better in a bowl by the television, like potpourri.

I meet my fellow hacks in the lobby. It’s the Tron: Legacy press day, and there’s a palpable sense of excitement amid the pink eyes and jetlag.

We’re piled into a van that looks like the one out of The A-Team, but without the stripe. Again, there’s a mysterious, claustrophobic air to its interior, and we’re jammed in, my fellow hacks and I, knee to knee. We’re driven down cracked streets already dusty with heat, past laundromats and pawn shops and secondhand car dealerships. Could this be where John Carpenter shot Assault On Precinct 13? I hope so.

We’re on our way to visit Digital Domain, the special effects company currently putting the finishing touches to Tron: Legacy, and given the difficult task of creating a convincing Jeff Bridges with an Amiga and a copy of Deluxe Paint.

The unassuming exterior of Digital Domain HQ

As we pull into the car park, we learn that Digital Domain is located in the warehouse out of Reservoir Dogs. It’s low-key, and faintly scruffy on the outside. Inside, there are exposed ducts and cubicles where the staff do things on computers. There are model skyscrapers and scale planes hanging from the ceiling. There’s a miniature Titanic somewhere, and posters of the films the company has worked on over the last 17 years. These include True Lies, Apollo 13, Star Trek: Nemesis and Transformers.

There’s Tron: Legacy stuff everywhere. There’s a life-size Light Cycle, a glowing Program suit, little scale miniatures in a glass cabinet, and odd bits of merchandising: glowing Wii and XBox 360 controllers, light-up PC keyboards and meeces,  a shiny Light Cycle belt buckle. Two models (the human variety) stand on a dais, wearing figure-hugging Tron outfits. They look bored enough to die.

But before we can look too closely at anything, we’re crowded into the screening area, where fold-up chairs are arranged in the darkness.

Inside Digital Domain

We watch 25 minutes of unreleased, unfinished footage. It’s very shiny and loud. We’re all quite impressed. Later, we’re split into groups, and engage in carefully managed interviews with Legacy cast and crew. We speak to Steve Lisberger, the director of the original Tron, who has grown into handsome old age. He has long hair and a beard, and looks as though he should be able to perform miracles. Lisberger is opinionated, sharp, funny, and quite wonderful.

Later, we meet Olivia Wilde, the actress who plays a feline, wide-eyed computer program in the movie. She sits with a little cellophane-covered plate of nuts, berries and raw vegetables, which she doesn’t eat. In the background sits her assistant, who looks the same but smaller. Ms. Wilde is articulate and intelligent, and mentions philosophy and Joan of Arc. After the interviews are over, we’ll later see her playing Tron: Evolution on an Xbox 360. Then she leaves, still clutching her uneaten plate of nuts and berries.

We’re ferried back to the hotel in the A-Team van. Once again, we’re all knackered – the flight, time difference and almost eight hours of interviews have taken their toll, and many of us are too tired to leave the hotel. I eat a burger, knock back a beer and three or four double gins, and return to my lodgings, where I fall asleep to the sound of pressure washer commercials.

* * *

Monday. I awake to the sound of pressure washer commercials. I head to the lobby, where two of my fellow UK writers are loitering with their bags. There’s about five hours until we get back on a plane to England, and we’re anxious to see a little more of LA before we have to head off home.

A helpful chap at the concierge desk books us a driver to chauffeur us around, a friend of his, he says. Twenty minutes later, and a black Mercedes arrives outside, hazy in the morning heat.

Our driver is tanned, with incredible teeth and hair. “I’ll show you stuff you won’t see on a normal tour” he drawls, before taking us off down a busy highway. The car slows down outside an anonymous collection of hedges and palm trees in a quiet suburb. It’s where, the driver says, OJ Simpson’s wife was killed.

Later, we arrive at what at first appears to be a car park behind a huge collection of skyscrapers, including the shadowy Oppenheimer Tower. As we emerge from the Merc into acid sun, we realise it’s a graveyard. The grass is weird – crispy, yet still fluorescent green, like astro turf. The names on the stones are all familiar: Jack Lemmon, Truman Capote, Dean Martin. The late comedians have humorous things etched below their names; Billy Wilder’s says, “I’m a writer, but nobody’s perfect.”

View from the cemetery

The driver ushers us to a quiet corner of the cemetery, where a great marble wall stands in the sunlight. There are plaques arranged on it in a grid, like a filing cabinet of the dead. One of the drawers says, “Marilyn Monroe 1926-1962.” There are coins balanced on the plaque, and flowers suspended in a little vase.

“If she were still alive, she’d be 84 now,” the driver notes, philosophically. “Man, she was hot. I would have banged her for sure.”

We all stand thinking about this for a moment, until we notice our skin begin to simmer in the blistering Californian sun. The driver notes this, too, with a comment I don’t recollect. Faintly wounded, we pile back into the Mercedes.

We head down Trenton Drive, a corridor of scorched palm trees. We see Sunset Boulevard, full of expensive-sounding shops: Jimmy Choo, Lalique. The driver assures us that we’ll see “Muchos chicks”, but the streets are deserted – no doubt due to the oppressive heat.

The driver applies foot to accelerator, and the Hollywood hills loom up in the distance. Over his shoulder, I see the Hollywood sign on the arid hillside, as white as Californian teeth. We’re taken high up into the hills themselves, where we see Los Angeles spread out beneath us. It’s a weird place – surprisingly quiet and ominous. I begin taking pictures of sweating buildings, the Hollywood sign, before a man comes out of a shed and tells us to fuck off.

The Hollywood sign, taken shortly before we're told to fuck off

We drive down into Hollywood Boulevard. Like typical tourists, we get out and take pictures of Grauman’s, the famous Chinese Theatre built in the 20s. There are handprints in the concrete – the cast of Star Trek, John Woo, C3PO out of Star Wars. Mel Gibson. I’m surprised his hasn’t been dug up yet.

Then there’s the walk of fame – a breadcrumb trail of stars. James Cameron. Donald Duck. The real and the fictional intermingled, as though they’re interchangeable. In Hollywood, they probably are.

Back in the Merc, our driver points out the flat where John Belushi died, and the nightclub where River Phoenix breathed his last. The recession has left its scars here. Shops are boarded up, streets cracked.

We’re also, the driver tells us, not far from Leimert Park, the place where the horribly mutilated body of waitress Elizabeth Short was found dumped in January 1947. Short was nicknamed Black Dahlia by LA journalists, who depicted the 23-year-old as a temptress in “a tight skirt and a sheer blouse” who “prowled Hollywood Boulevard.” Her immoral lifestyle, the papers claimed, “made her victim material.” Short’s killer was never caught.

The driver’s taking us to the last stop on our tour – Greystone Mansion, a 55-room mock-Tudor pile that squats high up in Beverly Hills. In what appears to be a repeating Hollywood pattern, the building’s history is a murky one.

Four months after its wealthy owner, Ned Doheny, moved into Greystone, he was found dead in his bedroom along with his secretary, Hugh Plunket. Years later, the house fell into the hands of the City of Beverly Hills, and has since become the go-to location for filmmakers in a hurry. Greystone has appeared in dozens of television shows, movies and music promos, including Spider-Man, Rush Hour, Murder, She Wrote and my personal favourite, The Big Lebowski.

Greystone Mansion

Greystone has the vague air of a classic country mansion, but even from a distance, there’s something not quite right about it. Something strange about its proportions. Appropriately enough, it looks like a film set. At close quarters, you can see the joins: Greystone isn’t built from stone, as it first appears, but from concrete.

In the garden, there’s a large pond filled with koi carp. Rocks jut out of the water, upon which sit a brace of pissed off looking terrapins. In the febrile heat, they observe me coolly.

On our way back to the airport, we’re driven past the vast homes of Bel-Air – Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts – almost invisible behind high walls, hedges and electric gates. There are security cameras mounted on every corner, staring anxiously down at the road. Truly, these are the houses of the paranoid.

There’s an empty, inert feeling throughout Hollywood, like a mausoleum. Even in the heat, its buildings are cold, sterile. There’s the atmosphere of an industrial estate, or an ant farm.

Before we get back on the plane, we stop off for burgers in a diner with polished floors. I think about Hollywood and its weird, heightened state of existence. It’s a place of insane wealth and fame, but also death and bizarre violence, too. A place of vast mansions with towers like a German castle, cemeteries with filing cabinets of the dead, famous names scrawled in wet cement, pissed off terrapins and weird, unsolved crimes.

An hour later, and I’m back on a plane, and ascending back up again, up through blue and cloud wisps.

Los Angeles disappears far below in a shimmering haze of cash and silent madness.

Here they are: the pissed off terrapins of Hollywood.

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Smouldering man candy

After weeks of being too busy, too confused or just too lazy, I’ve finally updated the site a little bit – specifically, the Writings for Pixels page, where you’ll find my two recent online articles for the Escapist, as well as a couple of reviews for the marvellous Nintendo Life.

Elsewhere on the web, I’ve compiled a list of 8 films that have influenced games, and I’ve also penned a brief review of the BBC’s informative Story of Science documentary.

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An X-Com FPS? Sacrilege!

Creative plundering’s all the rage at the moment. While Hollywood’s rifling through its knicker draw, busily remaking, rebooting and regurgitating every old television show, horror movie and line of toys it can find (coming in 2012 – Keypers: 3D), the music industry has taken to booking dozens of acts who all sound a bit like Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran, and ITV has just served up a lightly warmed-over rehash of The Prisoner starring Jesus and Gandalf.

The videogame industry isn’t immune from plundering its back catalogue either, with Final Fight: Double Impact reintroducing the street fighting antics of its topless, raging mayor to a new generation of gamers. One of this month’s oddest announcements comes from 2K Marin, who in its infinite wisdom has decided to remake Julian Gollop’s strategy masterpiece X-Com.

If you’ve been playing videogames for a very long time, the name Julian Gollop may mean something to you. Beginning in the early 80s, he earned a devoted following for a series of increasingly ambitious turn-based strategy games. Chaos was among his first, and still stands as one of the very best games of its ilk you’ll find.

Essentially a computerised card game, Chaos pitted a group of wizards against one another in a straight fight to the death. One of the few eight player strategy games then available, Chaos made for a uniquely entertaining multiplayer game, and even its more obvious drawbacks (your opponents would have to promise not to look while you selected your spells) added to its charm.

Thereafter, Gollop released the sci-fi strategy classics Rebelstar, Rebelstar II and Lasersquad, before returning to his earlier fantasy theme for Lords Of Chaos, which took the spell-casting concept of the original Chaos and expanded it into a strategy RPG. While a clear line of evolution can be drawn through all of Gollop’s games, the key thing that links them all is their uniquely addictive quality.

Since the advent of the Command & Conquer series, it’s more-or-less taken for granted that a strategy game can make for a compulsive evening’s entertainment. In the 80s, the genre was still largely the preserve of people wearing sandals who enjoyed reading lengthy books about Rommel.

For many, Gollop reached the height of his powers in 1994 with the release of X-Com, or UFO: Enemy Unknown, as it was called in some territories. Although expanded, after publisher MicroProse suggested its gameplay lacked the epic sweep of  Civilization, X-Com was a natural progression from the Aliens-inspired squad management of Rebelstar and Laser Squad. Like those games, X-Com made what, in lesser hands, would be the most ponderous of genres both compelling and addictive. That it’s still regularly mentioned in ‘best games of all time’ forum threads is a testament to its timeless ability to enthral and engross.

Given the widespread devotion that X-Com still receives, it’s unsurprising that 2K’s series reboot hasn’t been given a warm reception by gamers of a certain age. If there’s one thing the PC doesn’t need, it’s another first-person shooter, and one based on a resolutely cerebral strategy game like X-Com is needed still less.

Other retro titles have survived genre crossings, of course. Metroid Prime shoved Samus into the third dimension with aplomb, but how can 2K possibly retain even a small percentage of the original’s tactical depth from a first-person viewpoint? It makes about as much sense as ‘re-imagining’ Halo as a pet simulator.

For a developer with more than the cachet and industry clout of 2K Marin, the appropriation of an old and much-loved property like X-Com seems like a curiously opportunistic move. Without the X-Com name, wouldn’t the project be just another generic sci-fi FPS? Does 2K’s announcement make other fondly remembered retro titles fair game for the FPS treatment? Will Crytek make a shooter based on Horace Goes Skiing, Atic Atac, Monty Mole or Frogger?

If I found myself in Julian Gollop’s position, there’d be only one course of action to take: create a turn-based strategy game based on Bioshock. A properly old-school 2D one, with Rapture rendered in blocky tile-based graphics like a Byzantine floor, and hulking Big Daddies moving around one square at a time. Hell, at least old duffers like me would buy it.

Originally posted at the wonderful Den of Geek

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The rising value of virtual tat

There’s a strange law that governs digital television which dictates that, as you flick further on through the stations, the content presented to you becomes steadily more strange. The early channels are conventional enough – the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 with their soaps and property programmes – but then, as you pass through the barrier reef of E4+1, the laws of logic begin to break down. Here lurk the Turkish music stations and channels devoted to gambling, the obscure channels about religion, dating and Japanese flower arranging.

Best of all, though, you’ll find the shopping channels, and it was there, on a quiet Monday evening,  that I beheld the single most gorgeous, crappy object I’d ever seen. It was a globe, standing two feet high on a faux gold pedestal, inlaid with mother of pearl and sparkling things. The place names were set in Zapf Chancery, one of the top ten most awful typefaces in the world. It rotated and glowed. It was £200.

As much as I’d have loved one of these gloriously dreadful abominations, there was no way I would actually buy one, and I assumed at first that nobody else would either. But incredibly, I’d underestimated the public mood. The consignment of forty or fifty globes sold out within a few minutes.

On a somewhat related topic, I learned this week that a twelve-year-old boy had spent around £900 – much of which had been purloined from his parents’ credit card – on Farmville, the browser-based management game hosted by Facebook. This story, along with the light-up self-propelling globe, was a timely reminder of how true the old adage about a fool and his money really is.

Yet, as ridiculous as spending almost a grand on a virtual farm may sound (and I shudder to think what my mother would have done if I’d done the same thing as a youth), this pales into insignificance next to recent sales in the free-to-play MMO Planet Calypso.

Funded by micro-transactions, the game has become chiefly notable for the increasingly outlandish prices some of its items fetch in online auctions. In February, David “Deathifier” Storey handed over the equivalent of £45,300 for a non-existent egg. The most bizarre thing about this? Storey doesn’t even know what, if anything, the egg holds.

The whole idea of games based on micro-transactions seems alien to me in any case. I’m too steeped in the old-school method of buying games, where money is handed over and the game is yours to play. The notion of having to pop into a virtual shop every few days to buy more bullets or whatever seems insane. This probably comes down to the fact that I can be quite miserly over how much I’m willing to spend on videogames. I’m constantly hunting around for the cheapest deal, or buying ancient Mega Drive cartridges second-hand from eBay.

Nevertheless, the buying and selling of virtual goods represents a potentially lucrative money making opportunity for those brave enough to invest their money. The original owner of the Planet Calypso five figure egg, John “Neverdie” Jacobs, originally bought the item for around £6,500 in 2006. In 2005, Jacobs purchased an asteroid from another Planet Calypso player for almost £65,000. And while remortgaging your house to pay for a gigantic in-game rock sounds like financial suicide, his gamble appears to have paid off once again. After building a nightclub on it, Jacobs has reportedly seen the value of his asteroid increase ten-fold.

To somebody as tight as me, it seems inconceivable that something so intangible – a piece of data that could quite easily disappear off a server at any moment – could be valued so highly. It seems more like (virtual) insanity. I’d lie awake at night, terrified that the MMO’s production company might go bust, or that all the in-game data might spontaneously disappear.

On the other hand, is investing large sums of cash in virtual items really any more risky than betting it on stocks and shares? For those with a sound head for business and a strong stomach, the answer is “possibly not”.

And if dozens of people are willing to pay significant sums of money for a hideous spinning globe that will almost certainly end up in a car boot sale in a few years’ time, then maybe investing your disposable income on virtual eggs and asteroids isn’t such a ridiculous proposition after all.

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Evidence that Kratos will return for God of War IV?


So the final bloody QTE has played out, and Kratos lies fallen on his own sword, with Zeus defeated and Athena thoroughly disenfranchised. But as the camera pulls out for one last, lingering shot on Kratos’s bloodied corpse, there’s a clue that the belligerent anti-hero won’t stay that way for long. Etched into the rock beneath him is a giant bird – could this be the mythical phoenix?

It’s pure conjecture for now, of course, but if the bird does indeed represent the phoenix, then Kratos could be returning for another sequel in a couple of years’ time. And if you watched beyond the closing credits, you’ll have noted that Kratos had apparently crawled out of frame – possibly toward the edge of the cliff – leaving only behind only a pool of blood. Did Kratos sprout his legendary Icarus wings and fly away? Only time will tell.

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