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Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a 2017 American superhero film set in the Marvel Comics universe. Jon Watts direct the film and a team of writings penned the screenplay. In this the second reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, Tom Holland stars with Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr.

The movie is rated PG-13. Click here for a detailed examination of the film’s rating.

In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) struggles to balance high school, girls, family, friends and more while learning to be Spider-Man. Before he can achieve that balance he must face the Vulture, played by Michael Keaton. You can see all of this in the trailer. 

The movie begins shortly after Loki and the Chitauri destroy much of New York City in The Avengers. However, early in Spider-Man: Homecoming we see that Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr., knows Peter Parker, but the movie doesn’t show how they met. I did some research and discovered that Spider-Man: Homecoming begins directly after Tom Holland’s first appearance as Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War.

Oh, the work I do for you, my readers.

Unlike so many superhero movies, the world doesn’t hang in the balance in this film. The Vulture isn’t a demi-god or even a powerful superhero, just a human with high-tech alien gadgets, but that makes him a worthy opponent for this Spider-Man in training. Teenage struggles, fights with the Vulture and his gang are weaved into Peter Parker’s day. You know that in the end, the young Spider-Man will win, but how embarrassing will it be for him, and will Iron Man have to help?

I’ve said a few times that I’m getting tired of superhero movies, but both the recent Wonder Woman and this reboot of Spider-Man seem more human and engaging. I really doubt the writers are listening to me, but perhaps the studios have noticed a shift in the mood of the audience. I enjoyed Spider-Man, not for the superhero, but for the adolescent boy struggling with the normal teenager problems, and being a superhero. Recommendation: Buy the ticket.

Bokeh

Bokeh is a Netflix original science fiction film released in 2017. The film is directed by Geoffrey Orthwein and Andrew Sullivan and stars Matt O’Leary and Maika Monroe (It Follows, The 5th Wave and Independence Day: Resurgence). Virtually everyone else is an extra. The movie is rated TV-14. Click here for a detailed examination of the film’s rating.

I had never heard of the word bokeh before finding this movie and had no idea what it meant until doing research for this review. Bokeh is of Japanese origin and, according to Google, refers to “the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image, especially as rendered by a particular lens.” In the film, Riley is a photographer and through much of the movie takes pictures of Jenai, beautiful Icelandic scenery, and around Reykjavik. Beyond that, the movie has spectacular cinematography.

The first act of the film establishes the love between Riley, played by Matt O’Leary, and Jenai, played by Maika Monroe. Unlike most science fiction movies their affection is established in ways more common to romance movies, with beautiful settings, glances, smiles, embraces and background music. At one point Riley says to Jenai, “We have everything we need.”

The second act begins with an abrupt end of music and change in sound. You know something bad has happened and quickly learn that everyone else has disappeared. That isn’t a spoiler it’s revealed in the trailer.

The problem I had with the film is the second act never really ends. The movie explores the way the two characters react to the situation. Riley is the romantic, who believes they have a beautiful world to use and explore, while Jenai is a pragmatist and wonders how they will survive. A third character is briefly brought in to provide for a more philosophical discussion. Is there a plan to life or is this all just chance?

Bokeh gives Riley and Jenai the world, but are two people enough to make a life? Do we need those connections with family and friends? Most people would never explore such questions, but Riley and Jenai must.

I kept expecting a final twist of the plot, or some climactic end. It didn’t happen. This is not your traditional science fiction film, but if you like slower movies that explore the human condition Bokeh might be for you. If that is the case, and you have Netflix, check it out. Recommendation: Watch on cable.

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is an American superhero movie set in the DC comics universe. The film is directed by Patty Jenkins. The screen play is by Allan Heinberg and it stars Gal Gadot (Fast and Furious 6, Furious 7, and Batman vs Superman) and Chris Pine (Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit). Other notable stars include Robin Wright (Forrest Gump and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Danny Huston (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), and David Thewlis (who played Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies).

The movie is rated PG-13. Click here for a detailed examination of the film’s rating.

I’ve grown rather tired of comic book movies and hadn’t planned to see Wonder Woman, but when I heard that Tunisia, Lebanon, and Jordan had decided to boycott the movie because of Gal Gadot’s Israeli nationality, I decided to see it.

The film opens on Themyscira, the fictional island home of the Amazon women. The queen of this realm is Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Gal Gadot plays Diana a girl with a hidden destiny who grows to womanhood and learns the art of war. My interest in the film grew after Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane near Themyscira. Diana has never seen a man and her curiosity about them and the world he came from amused me. Pine plays a very compassionate, sometimes befuddled, but always honorable character.

Diana leaves behind this idyllic life and goes with Trevor for London and on to the war front. This starts act two and the mixture of drama and humor that started with Trevor’s arrival continues. You see a bit of this humor at the end of the trailer.

It’s my opinion that movies based on comic books always have the same problem, the climax. Often all of humanity hangs in the balance and only the superhero can save us. In this vein, Diana goes on a hunt for the god Ares, believing that all war and bloodshed is his fault. The movie delivers with battle, hand-to-hand combat, explosions and a few twists and comic turns. I enjoyed the relationship between Diana and Steve Trevor and enjoyed the twists and turns in the final portion of the movie. That’s what makes this an above average superhero movie.

If you like movies based on comic books, this is one of the better ones. Recommendation: Buy the ticket.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a 2017 sequel to the 2014 Guardians of the Galaxy film. This latest film, like the original, is written by James Gunn and stars Chris Pratt (Zero Dark Thirty) and Zoe Saldana (Star Trek, Star Trek – Into Darkness & Avatar). The movie is rated PG-13. Click here for a detailed examination of the film’s rating.

The Guardians of the Galaxy movies are based on the Marvel comics that date back to 1969. While I’m not a big fan of movies based on comic books I enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie mainly because of the humanity of the characters and overall humor of the movie. This humanity and humor has continued into the second movie and, in volume two, we learn much more about Chris Pratt’s character, Peter Quill, other members of the team, and related characters.

The second movie begins not long after the first one. Groot is still a twig. As the movie begins we learn that the guardian team is on a mission for a race called the Sovereign. While the mission is successful there is a complication and the Sovereign seek vengeance against the guardian team. That’s not a spoiler, it’s all laid out in the opening minutes of the movie. Speaking of the opening minutes, don’t be late for this movie, the fight that takes place during the job for the Sovereign is mixed with the opening credits and is one of the most original and amusing sequences I’ve ever seen.

The issue with the Sovereign provides the action scenes, while Peter’s father, Ego, played by Kurt Russell, provides the tension within Peter and additional tension for the team as a whole.  

Like the first iteration of Guardians, this movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. Howard the Duck and Cosmo the Spacedog both make cameo appearances and Stan Lee is shown a couple of times sharing stories with the Watchers.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, continues the storyline, great characters and humor started with the first movie. Recommendation: Buy the ticket and see it in the theater.

Ghost in the Shell

Originally published as a seinen manga anime in Japan, the current iteration of Ghost in the Shell is a live-action PG-13, American science fiction film directed by Rupert Sanders, written by Jamie Moss and starring Scarlett Johansson. I haven’t read any of the earlier print or anime versions, that date back to 1989, this review is based exclusively on my impression of the 2017 movie, with some background information from my sons. The film is rated PG-13. Click here for a detailed examination of the film's rating.

In the not too distant future, the line between human and machine has blurred and most humans have cybernetic enhancements.  Hanka Robotics is the world leader in augmentative technology and they have developed a mechanical body, or “shell,” that can integrate a human brain with a cybernetic body. When a terrorist attack leaves Mira Killian on the edge of death, and both parents dead, Hanka Robotics chooses Mira as a test subject for their program. Over the objections of some, Hanka CEO Cutter decides to use Mira in a police-like counter-terrorism role. All of this is revealed during the opening minutes of the movie.

I’ll start off by saying that I’m not a fan of graphic novels, manga, or Japanese anime. I don’t dislike them. I just don’t seek them out. Ghost in the Shell is a martial-arts action film with stylized violence, lots of shooting and death. Everyone in the film seems to know martial arts and carry a gun. Cursing in the film is limited to occasional uses of mild and mid-range words. Sex is limited to machine prostitutes and more implied than shown.  

Since Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese creation there have been accusations of whitewashing from the liberal left over the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi. I’ll just say that Johansson has been a long-time supporter of multiple liberal causes and apparently had no problem playing a Japanese character.    

Visually this science fiction movie is superb. It paints a dark, sordid, but in many ways realistic city and streetscape. Earlier versions of Ghost in the Shell delved heavily into what is the soul and what constitutes a person. This movie scales back those philosophical questions, ratchets up the action, and thus creates a more accessible movie. At least that’s what the creators hoped would happen. Box office receipts suggest the movie is bombing.

If you enjoy anime or go to this film expecting guns, martial arts, and science fiction action I think you will enjoy Ghost in the Shell.

This film offers little outside of those areas mentioned just above and perhaps that’s why it’s not doing well at the box office. The philosophical elements are marginalized and the shooting and fighting are in a dozen other movies. Unless you particularly like what this film is offering, wait and rent it.

The Space Between Us

The Space Between Us is a 2017 American science fiction film directed by Peter Chelsom, produced by Richard Lewis and based on a story by screenwriter Allan Loeb, and Stewart Schill. The film stars Asa Butterfield, as Gardner Elliot, a teenage boy born on Mars, and Britt Robertson, as Tulsa, an Earth girl living in foster care. They meet and talk online. Apparently, in the future, there is no delay in communication between Earth and Mars. Gardner falls in love and, when finally given a chance to return to Earth, he runs away to find her.

Following a fairly standard formula of boy longs for a girl that is out of his reach, boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, but forces beyond their control might tear them apart forever, the movie targets teens and young adults with a mixture of near-future science fiction and romance.

Except for a bit of coarse language, and a love scene that implies more than it reveals, this could have been a PG movie, but it is rated PG-13. Click here for a detailed examination of the film's rating.

If you go into this film expecting a near future teen to young adult romance with a space twist then it can be an enjoyable popcorn movie. However, since the film has nothing new and is aimed at a young audience (that I don’t think is reading this blog) I’m recommending you Wait and Rent The Space Between Us.

Passengers

Passengers is a PG-13 hard science fiction movie directed by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), and starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence.

Five thousand passengers and crew are asleep in hibernation pods aboard the starship Avalon on a 120 year voyage to planet Homestead II. However, just thirty years into the trip, a malfunction awakens passenger Jim Preston (Chris Pratt). Later Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) awakens. Unable to return to hibernation, the two face living the rest of their lives together on the ship as it travels in deep space. However, the problem that awakened Preston remains and is a growing danger to the ship. They will need to risk their lives or everyone may die.

In addition to Pratt and Lawrence both Michael Sheen and Laurence Fishburne, have roles in Passengers, but the film still has one of the smallest casts I’ve ever seen for a big budget production. That being said, I think the bartender, played by Sheen, steals some of the show.

As often happens, during the second act the plot takes a twist. This one involves Preston in an act of desperation. How you feel about that twist will determine how you view the remainder of the movie.

Passengers offers little that is new to the science fiction genre, but the plot is good, it’s well acted and the CGI is first rate. Despite my issue with Preston, I found myself dwelling on the many issues raised by the movie for several days. Even now, when I think about the last scene of the film, it evokes emotion. If you’re a science fiction fan I think you’ll enjoy the movie.

Recommendation: Buy the ticket and see it in the theater.

Arrival

Arrival, released in November of 2016, is a science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve and stars Amy Adams (Trouble with the Curve and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), Jeremy Renner (Captain America: Civil War and Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation), and Forest Whitaker (Battlefield Earth and The Last King of Scotland). The screenplay was written by Eric Heissere and is based on the Nebula Award-winning short story by Ted Chiang. The movie is rated PG-13. Click here for a detailed examination of the film’s rating.

Twelve alien spacecraft arrive over different parts of the globe. World governments make first contact but are unable to communicate. Like all the nations of the planet the United States government wants to know one thing, what do the aliens want? In desperation, the military reaches out to linguist Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams.

Colonel Weber, played by Forest Whitaker, takes Banks to a growing military camp in Montana near one of the alien ships. Working with another scientist named Ian, played by Jeremy Renner, Banks struggles to understand the alien's language of clicks and chirps. As tensions around the world increase, she begins to decipher not their spoken language, but their written one.

Arrival is a movie that requires you to think and be engaged with it. It is both a story of sadness in the life of Louise Banks and how the world might change starting on that first day of contact with an alien race. What should we do? How would we greet them and how would we communicate with them?

Part of this movie is told in flashback, or is it. Time, and our perception of it, is at the heart of this film. A portion of this movie can only be understood if seen in both the present and future. As I said, Arrival is a story that requires you to think.

No cities are destroyed during this movie and the military plays a largely supporting role. However, in one scene, a small group of American soldiers act by themselves to harm the aliens and supposedly protect the world. As I sat in the theater watching this unfold I kept thinking that the soldiers would be better trained and led. The subplot seemed forced, for added tension, and didn’t seem plausible to me. Thankfully, this is a very small part of the movie.

Arrival is science fiction in the best tradition of the genre. If you like movies that cause you to ponder elements for days afterward then you will like this film. Recommendation: Buy a ticket and see it in the theater.

Hacksaw Ridge

The film Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson, is based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist from the hill country of Virginia. The United States entered World War II when Doss was in his early twenties. The young man found work in a shipyard and, despite being offered a deferment due to his work; he enlisted on April 1, 1942.  

However, because of his religious beliefs, Doss was a pacifist and refused to use or even carry a weapon in combat. You can imagine the considerable abuse he suffered from other soldiers due to his pacifist position. Despite the abuse, he does finally become an Army medic. These events are all well portrayed in the first part of the film.

While some of the abuse Doss endures early in the film might be difficult to watch, much of the later portion shows war at its worst. Think of other Mel Gibson movies such as Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ or Apocalypto, but with all the brutality concentrated into one nearly unbroken sequence.

Doss fought in the Battle of Guam and Leyte, but this movie focuses on the Battle of Okinawa and the fight for the Maeda Escarpment where Doss saved the lives of 75 wounded infantrymen. This fight was brutal and is accurately portrayed in the movie.

Corporal Doss receiving the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman on October 12, 1945

Corporal Doss receiving the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman on October 12, 1945

Desmond Doss earned the Medal of Honor, and numerous other awards, including the Bronze Star Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster and "V" Device, and the Purple Heart with two Oak Leaf Clusters.

Those who fought in World War II are often called the greatest generation. What those men and women sacrificed for freedom is difficult to comprehend. I found myself wondering if I could have maintained my Christian principles, or even faith, under the onslaught of such epic evil and brutality. Hopefully, I will never have to face that question, but Desmond Doss did and held tight to his faith. I came away from the movie respecting Doss for both his courage and faith.

I recommend that you buy the ticket and see Hacksaw Ridge, but be forewarned this movie is rated ‘R’ for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence. Click here for a detailed examination of the film's rating.

The Martian

The Martian is a hard science fiction movie directed by Ridley Scott and based on Andy Weir's novel of the same name. The film is rated PG-13. Click here for a detailed examination of the film's rating.

Matt Damon (The Bourne Identity, Contagion, Interstellar and more) stars as astronaut Mark Watney who is presumed dead during a sand storm and left behind on Mars. That’s not a spoiler, it happens in the opening seconds of the movie. This film is about Watney’s struggle to survive and the efforts to rescue him.

Andy Weir wrote The Martian as a series of blogposts on his website. Science grounded readers of the blog offered comments and suggestions. When blog readers wanted to download the entire project for reading, Weir put the posts into one file and uploaded it to Amazon. In a few months, The Martian topped the Amazon science fiction bestseller list. Four days later a Hollywood agent called asking about movie rights.

Yes, I’m a little envious of his quick success, but Weir did work hard both on the plot and to make his novel as scientifically accurate as possible. The film producers made the excellent decision to bring that level of accuracy to the movie version. They called NASA early on and spoke with their film and television liaison Bert Ulrich. Weir and the production team toured NASA facilities, asked hundreds of questions and got the answers, diagrams and pictures they needed.

The Martian is a Robinson Crusoe story set on Mars. We know there are going to be loneliness, setbacks, and struggles, but the science background makes the suspension of disbelief easy. I was engaged with this film from the opening moments. This story could happen to an early Martian explorer, but I hope their rescue comes easier and smoother than Watney's does in this movie.

Recommendation: Buy the ticket and see it in the theater.

American Sniper and America

Why is American Sniper such a box office success?

Nearly two weeks after it was released, I went to see the movie American Sniper. For those of you who have been off the grid, the film is based on the book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, by Chris Kyle. The title sums up much of the book.

From where I sat in the theater it was clear the movie was still doing well at the box office when I saw it. As I left the cinema I was thinking of other recent movies about our wars in the Middle East. Most that I remembered had not done well. That led me to the question, what is different about American Sniper that makes it such a box office success?

While the movie seems to resonate with many Americans, Bill Maher of HBO’s Real Time, called Chris Kyle a “psychopath patriot,” and NBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin described Kyle’s work as a military sniper as “killing sprees.” Matt Taibbi writing in Rolling Stone called the movie, “Almost Too Dumb to Criticize.” Taibbi goes on to say, “It's the fact that the movie is popular, and actually makes sense to so many people, that's the problem.”

American Sniper, Lone Survivor, and Zero Dark Thirty all depict the American military in a favorable light fighting against terrorism and related evil. The government is either not depicted or shown to have similar goals.

In contrast, The Green Zone portrays an inept or corrupt American leadership and a rogue military. Michael Moore called The Green Zone, “the most honest film about the Iraq War made by Hollywood.”

The Hurt Locker took a more nuanced view of the military and their mission in the Middle East but, as the list here shows, that moral ambiguity didn’t resonate with American moviegoers. However, the Hollywood elite loved it, giving it the Academy Award for best picture in 2009. 

Click to enlarge

Personally, I prefer stories that portray the United States and its military as a force for good in the world. I realize that we’ve not always succeeded, but good should always be our goal. On the other hand, liberals seem to view the worst in our country as the norm. However, in World War II, the Korean War, and during the Cold War it was the America military that turned the tide against fascism, communism and oppression.

American Sniper depicts a good man trying to protect his fellow soldiers and innocent civilians during an ugly conflict. That is what I expect from the military and, apparently, many Americans share that opinion. 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy is a 2014 film directed and co-written by James Gunn, and starring Chris Pratt (Zero Dark Thirty) and Zoe Saldana (Star Trek, Star Trek – Into Darkness & Avatar). The movie is rated PG-13. Click here for a detailed examination of the film’s rating.

Guardians of the Galaxy is based on the Marvel comics dating back to 1969. Generally, I’m not a fan of comic book movies. The stars of these films tend to be nearly indestructible superheroes and this leads to implausible plots about how they might be hurt, as seen in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Often villains are the most interesting characters (Suicide Squad) and watching interesting bad guys is not why I go to the movies.

However, with Guardians of the Galaxy, we have a cast of relatively average people. Peter Quill, Chris Pratt, was kidnapped from Earth as a child. Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana, is a green alien orphan raised as a warrior and trained as an assassin. Drax, Dave Bautista, is a distraught man seeking revenge for the murder of his family. Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, is a genetically altered raccoon with issues about his heritage and height. Last, there is Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel, a tree-like humanoid, with a three-word vocabulary. Okay, maybe they’re not average, but this is a motley crew that I can get involved with and enjoy watching.

In some ways, Guardians of the Galaxy is a Star Wars style hero’s journey movie with Chris Pratt playing a Han Solo-like character and Zoe Saldana as the princess love interest. In other ways, the film is a space western movie like Serenity and the original television show Firefly. Star Wars, Serenity or Firefly, It really doesn’t matter to me, I liked all of them.  

This is a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, or perhaps just seriously enough. It opens with a dying mother but quickly moves on to Chris Pratt dancing and lip-synching to Come and Get Your Love. In the closing credits, the audience is assured that “No raccoons or tree creatures were harmed during the making of this film.”

If you’re looking for a fun movie that doesn’t require much thought about plot or characters Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie that you’ll enjoy. Recommendation: Buy the ticket and see it in the theater.

Starship Troopers

The Movie Rips the Heart Out of the Story

Robert Heinlein’s 1959 Hugo Award-winning novel Starship Troopers is the inspiration for this very loose movie adaptation.  Heinlein was a 1928 graduate of the Naval Academy and the author of over thirty science fiction novels.  Some say that Starship Troopers founded the military science fiction subgenre; at the very least it spurred the growth.   

Literature is a springboard for ideas, insights and intellectual growth, but science fiction rarely aspires or reaches such heights.  When I first read the novel as a teenager it provided insights into how a society might be organized and in the years since it became one of the springboards for my own writing. I’m not saying the novel is great literature, but it is superior science fiction.  It presents a plausible future society with an appropriate intellectual and philosophical framework.  It is the philosophical aspect that is at the heart of the novel.  This movie rips that heart out of the story. 

Written during the height of the Cold War, the novel was the means by which Heinlein argued for a strong military.  The story also serves as a vehicle to present his libertarian political ideas.  While the story contains more introspection, exposition, and character discussion than is common in the genre it has also been criticized as exceedingly pro-military and lacking in character depth and development.  The story is pro-military, but I don’t believe it lacks character development.  However, one must remember that, unlike most science fiction, Heinlein was presenting ideas with the novel, not merely a story about killing alien bugs.    

If the movie stood alone I might be able to recommend it based on some fine special effects, truly unworldly aliens, and great action scenes, but since I’ve read and enjoyed the novel I could not enjoy this travesty of a movie.

If you’re a science fiction fan I recommend you read the novel. Don't bother seeing this movie.

Ultraviolet

Ultraviolet is a dystopian science fiction action thriller film written and directed by Kurt Wimmer. It stars Milla Jovovich, Cameron Bright, and Nick Chinlund. The movie is rated PG-13. Click here for a detailed examination of the film’s rating.

Released in 2006, Ultraviolet went almost immediately to DVD. That should have told me all I needed to know, but I thought it might be interesting.  

The film takes place in a dystopian future after a pandemic that causes vampire-like symptoms. Those infected can live for twelve years and during that time they are very strong and heal quickly. The government decides to exterminate infected individuals in order to contain the virus. All this is backstory; the film begins after most infected individuals have been killed.

That premise isn’t bad, but Ultraviolet follows the plot like a 2006 video game, with second-rate acting and cheap CGI.  Another review referred to this movie as a “disposable adolescent” fantasy, I couldn’t agree more. 

Watching Ultraviolet left me feeling like I was gazing over the shoulder of a teenager playing an elaborate video game, but of course, I wasn’t. However, Ultraviolet does appear to have been created for the young male, game playing audience.  If you like seeing a young attractive woman, Milla Jovovich, in tight pants engage in stylized (The Matrix) style combat, this film is for you.

I came away from this film wondering why, with all the good Science Fiction books on the market, any group of people would decide to invest millions of dollars making this movie.  Then I checked and discovered it did make a small profit.  Some part of my faith in humanity died.       

Perhaps this would be a good dollar rental on a slow night with high school or college friends, but as a fan of serious science fiction, I can’t recommend it. Recommendation: Don’t bother.