New Horizons and Ultima Thule: Where to Watch

Update: it turns out that the coverage of the Ultima Thule flyby is “forward funded”, so it will proceed on NASA TV as normal.

New Horizons, the spacecraft that famously imaged Pluto three years ago, will be making history again on New Year’s Day by making the most distant flyby in history. The spacecraft will be flying close by the Kuiper belt object (486958) 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule (pronounced “THOO-lee”).

This distant, comet-like object is much smaller than Pluto, only about 30 km (19 miles) across. It’s also not very round. Observations of Ultima Thule as it passed in front of a star on July 17, 2017 revealed that it has a dumbbell shape or is perhaps a very close binary.

This promises to be a fascinating scientific event, but there’s just one problem: the U.S. government is currently in a partial shutdown, which looks likely to extend into the next Congress, which starts on January 3. Don’t panic. NASA is still running the mission and will get the data, but if the shutdown continues, the usual go-tos to watch the encounter like NASA TV will be offline. (It’s running as of this posting, but they won’t be doing live events.) NASA’s website will also not be updated, at least not in a timely fashion.

But there is good news. NASA is also partnering with Johns Hopkins University, and JHU will be running coverage of New Horizons through the shutdown. You can find all of the information at the JHU Applied Physics Laboratory website, and their YouTube channel.

The first press conference will be tomorrow, December 28 at 1:00 PM EST, during which they will preview the flyby and science operations. There will be more on December 31, and the main event, acquiring the data, on New Year’s Day with science results announce the two days afterward. I highly recommend you check it out.

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Could Mortal Engines’ Municipal Darwinism Work?

In Mortal Engines, based on the book series by Philip Reeve, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland ravaged by nuclear war, the surviving settlements have become “traction cities,” putting themselves on wheels to roam what was once Eurasia (an area known in the books as “the Great Hunting Ground”) and sustain themselves by literally eating each other. This strange lifestyle is known as “Municipal Darwinism”.

Could this ridiculous premise actually work? Let’s set aside the engineering problem of putting something that’s half the size of Manhattan on wheels, let alone getting it moving. (If you want to know more, see Because Science’s YouTube video on the subject.) Could London, the film’s “villain” city, maintain this lifestyle for hundreds of years? The answer, weirdly, is maybe yes, and the clues come from real predators and prey on Earth. There is an environment on Earth that eerily resembles the world of Mortal Engines, and “life, uh, finds a way” there.

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Movie Review: Mortal Engines

Well, here it is. Possibly the most ridiculous movie of the year is Mortal Engines (although I have a post on the plausibility of it coming up). Mortal Engines is based on a young adult science fiction series by Philip Reeve about a post-apocalyptic future where cities are on wheels and eat each other for resources.

If it sounds crazy, it’s because it kind of is, but hey, it’s a young adult novel. It can get away with a fair amount of silliness. I could certainly name dumber premises, and even Mortal Engines itself recalls James Blish’s Cities in Flight, so it’s not entirely new. Plus, it’s steampunk, and you can always give steampunk a couple bonus points.

But that said, Mortal Engines is getting rather poor reviews: an abysmal 27% from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes, although the audience gives it a more respectable 58%. As for me, I actually rather liked it—certainly better than the ratings it’s getting. I went in with low expectations, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well it turned out.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5…maybe borderline 4.

I think Mortal Engines’s biggest flaw is that it’s trying to tell a three-hour story in a two-hour movie, which is weird because with Peter Jackson co-writing, the problem is usually the reverse. There was too much going on, and the story didn’t have room to breathe properly.

This was a little complicated to parse. I don’t mean it in the same way that I did for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, where I said the movie was trying to do too much at once. As a writer myself, I can recognize the problem J. K. Rowling had in The Crimes of Grindelwald: she had too many pieces she needed or wanted to line up to get the story told and set up the next movie. The problem for Mortal Engines is different: it’s just a bigger story—more epic, you might say, even though it’s only based on the first of the four Mortal Engines books. The distinction is subtle, and I can’t fully quantify it, but a longer story or even a more complicated story is not exactly the same as a story that’s too “crowded.”

One thing I noticed in this vein was that I felt like Mortal Engines didn’t have enough of what I would call “scene setting”. We only got a brief taste of what “normal” life is like for the traction cities in Europe. Although the book also opens with London chasing down the mining town of Salthook, and there is something to be said for starting with an action sequence (one of Peter Jackson’s signatures), I think the story would be better served by slowing down and showing more of the city life.

Note that this is also not the same as there not being enough exposition. That was a criticism I particularly had of Mad Max: Fury Road, which was why I didn’t understand why its ratings were so high. Mortal Engines had enough exposition for me to follow it easily. It just needed to let the story breathe a bit more.

I guess this is the distinction I’m looking for. It wasn’t that Mortal Engines was trying to do too much; it’s that the things it did do were too rushed. Even then, the definition of “too much” will vary from story to story, and I suspect that major factors include narrative structure, worldbuilding, exposition, and “scene setting”. It’s complicated, and I can’t really say more beyond, “I know it when I see it.”

So where does this leave the movie? It has some serious flaws, yes. Several subplots were quite poorly developed, and as I said, it felt rushed. Maybe I’m being too generous with my rating, and maybe I’ll come back tomorrow and say I should have rated it lower. (I’ve found that tends to happen in the past, which is why I’m equivocating over this one.) But that rating is a reflection of how much fun I had with the movie, and despite its problems, that’s probably the best recommendation I can give it.

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Movie Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe is dominating the box office, they haven’t completely abandoned other stories. Deadpool, Venom, and the X-Men are still getting their own movies, for better or worse, but this month’s big offering is the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

This isn’t the story of Peter Parker, though. This is the story of Miles Morales, the “Black Spider-Man” (not to be confused with Spider-Man 3) who was introduced in the comics in an alternate universe in 2011—and it’s the story of Peter Parker…and Gwen Stacy…and a 1930s private eye…and a small Japanese girl with a spider robot…and a cartoon pig.

It makes sense in context.

Actually, it more than makes sense. This is an excellent movie—easily competing with Spider-Man: Homecoming as the best Spider-Man movie.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you probably understand the premise. A bunch of alternate versions of Spider-Man from parallel universes get tossed together and have to save the space-time continuum from being ripped apart. Honestly, I wish some of the alternates could have had a bit more development, but the main ones were handled really well, and it was a lot of fun to see them all working together.

But of course, the main plot is the origin story of Miles as his own universe’s Spider-Man as he struggles with family, training, and being thrown in the deep end of saving the world long before he’s ready. That also worked really well. One of the weaknesses of superhero reboots is that you often have to tell the origin story all over again—something Marvel wisely skipped in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Everyone knows Peter Parker’s origin story. Rehash it too many times (often more than once is too much), and it starts to read like bad fanfiction. But Miles Morales is a new character with a life of his own who has a very different path to becoming Spider-Man and ultimately becomes a very different Spider-Man, full stop. That means we get a fresh new take on a familiar story, and it works brilliantly. And it has a few fun Deadpool-esque meta-jokes along the way. And the comic book-style CGI was really clever, too. I really enjoyed this movie, and I highly recommend it for Marvel fans.

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Book Review: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

John Green is the famed young adult author of hits such as The Fault in Our Stars—but this post isn’t about him. His brother Hank Green, on the other hand, is an internet-famous science communicator and musician and co-host with his brother of the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel and a bunch of other stuff. But now, Hank has also joined his brother in the ranks of novelists with his debut, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, which is equal parts sci-fi thriller and commentary on our modern internet and social media culture.

April May (yes, really), a twenty-three-year-old graphic designer, discovers a ten-foot sculpture of a robot that mysteriously appears on the streets of Manhattan at two in the morning. She names it Carl and makes a YouTube video about it, and she wakes up the next morning to find that she’s gone viral. It turns out there are sixty-four Carls in cities all over the world; no one knows where they came from or how they got there, and she got the first video of it.

Things only get weirder from there as it becomes increasingly clear that the Carls are not of this world, and April’s fame takes on a life of its own in this thrilling tale of social media and the state of our culture today.

No, really. It’s better than that makes it sound.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Mild Spoilers Below

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Who is Credence Barebone?

Warning: MAJOR spoilers for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald below. This is my take on breaking down the big end-of-the-movie reveal, so if you haven’t seen it, click away now.

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Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Well, this is the moment fellow Harry Potter fans have been waiting for: the second Fantastic Beasts movie: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Now we see the continued adventures of Newt Scamander and the evil schemes of Gellert Grindelwald. So how was it? Honestly, not as good as I was hoping. I believe J. K. Rowling fell into the same trap in writing this film that she did in Order of the Phoenix and parts of Deathly Hallows: trying to do too much at once. The storyline was cluttered with too many extraneous elements. Not to mention all the continuity problems she introduced.

Unfortunately, The Crimes of Grindelwald just doesn’t measure up to its predecessor, I rated that one a 4.5 out of 5, but I don’t think I can fairly give this one even a 4. It’s entertaining enough, and if you’re a Wizarding World fan like me, you should absolutely see it, but…

My rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I feel like this movie needs a bit more of a detailed treatment, so in the style of my review of The Last Jedi, let’s break it down.

Spoilers Below (#keepthesecrets)

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