Review: Jupiter’s Legacy

Very much so connected with last week’s post, I typically find myself turned off by Mark Millar’s original comics, but the screen adaptations turn out enjoyable enough. Kick-Ass, for instance, remains brutal and violent in film but has more heart than the savage world portrayed in the original narrative. I found that I rather enjoyed the new television adaptation of Jupiter’s Legacy on Netflix, and while I have never read Millar’s original comic version, a casual review of plot summaries suggests that this would be yet another instance of favoring the adaptation over the original. I’ll set that aside, though.

What I really liked about Jupiter’s Legacy (the show) is that it provided a unique, consolidated history of superheroes in its own universe that all centered around family and legacy. Its tackling of two mysteries in two distinct time periods, one focusing on the origin of the superpowers for the founding members of the Union of Justice and the other on the contemporary mystery of how a notorious and now-quite-lethal supervillain has apparently been duplicated, provides for ongoing suspense even as it slowly fleshes out its lengthy history between 1929 and the present. Both of these narratives ultimately come together to highlight the tensions between the old ways of the classic heroes with their idealistic code and the demand for change by newer heroes in reaction to a more murderous direction taken by their supervillain foes.

That broad focus on fictional superhero history and philosophy used to fuel a fundamentally ethical conundrum about the use of lethal force is given considerably more human grounding by focusing on the families of the original team members. The children of the Utopian and Lady Liberty chafe under the code and their lives in the shadows of superhero legends; one is the catalyst of the entire debate about the code, while the other has alienated herself from her superpowered family and friends, instead choosing a life of high fashion and debauchery. Meanwhile, children of other founding members have their own legacies to cope with and decisions to make in the wake of recent events. There are a lot of moving parts, but this focus on familial relationships gives us a framework for personal investment.

I’m interested in a second season because I want to see where the big mystery in the contemporary timeline, with its season-ending twist reveal, leads, but also because I want to see what the original heroes were like as they operated throughout the mid-twentieth century. It would be interesting to see how they navigated around political entanglement during the wars and other crises of the times, how this setting deals with costumed superheroes during the Cold War, how other superpowered individuals emerged, and how people began to turn to supervillainy.

There are a few things, however, that do bother me about the show so far. First, while the cast is somewhat diverse, the primary protagonists are overwhelmingly white, issues of race have been handled unevenly in the 1930s setting so far, and a disproportionate number of people of color have been killed. Second, while a rather minor point, the greatly extended lifespans of the original Union go unremarked-upon, which isn’t a gamebreaker in and of itself, but it does make it difficult to understand why they waited so long in life to have children; they all seemed to have decided to have kids in their eighties or nineties, for some reason, and that’s more bizarre to me than simply having unnaturally lengthened lives. Third and finally, the Union is clearly analogous to the Justice League, despite key differences, and this invites comparison to DC’s Kingdom Come, which just reminds me what a tremendously better story that was. I’d rather see a Kingdom Come adaptation!

That said, I like Jupiter’s Legacy, and I’d happily take more of it. Even with what must now be dozens of superhero shows out there to stream, this offers something fresh.

Two Apocalypses

I think I’ve demonstrated by now that I have great fondness for animation, and I tend to prefer an optimistic and positive outlook in fiction. As such, it should come as no surprise that I rather enjoyed The Mitchells vs. The Machines. Despite ostensibly being a family-friendly movie about a robot apocalypse, it’s really an action comedy that at its heart is about a somewhat dysfunctional nuclear family finding ways to practice empathy to understand each other better and repair the faults in their relationships. The animation was fantastic, the art style had a lot of quirky flair, the voice acting was top-notch (though the younger brother was very distractingly voiced as Not A Child), the writing was sparkling with humor, there were some tremendously silly-yet-epic action sequences, and yet what stuck with me was the family’s struggle to bond and eventual ability to reconnect as the oldest daughter prepares to leave the home for college.

I could perhaps force myself to write a larger review of The Mitchells vs. The Machines. And I had originally planned to do so. But I write enough reviews already for a personal blog. What I found more interesting was what this movie says about me and my values, especially in contrast to the even-more-recently-released Army of the Dead. The latter film, a Zack Snyder feature, is nihilistic and amoral, unconcerned with presenting a clear message. The characters are broad tropes, entertaining at first but just blank enough that it is unsurprising when they die off one by one. Snyder ends his film by allowing two characters to survive–one sure to die but perhaps only after setting off yet another zombie outbreak. The film delights in stylized violence and gore, in big sweeping frames of zombie hordes rallying to battle, and I suppose I should expect as much and nothing more from a Snyder flick (although I’m one of those true believers in the artistry of Snyder’s directorial vision in his DC superhero movies, despite my reservations about that dubious distinction).

It is probably not very surprising to those who know me or have otherwise read this blog for a while that I am really disturbed by depictions of gore or prolonged physical torment. I don’t have the stomach for it. So zombie movies are usually outside of what I’ll watch. There are exceptions, just as there are exceptions to my general avoidance of the horror genre as a whole. I’d made the poor decision to make an exception for Army of the Dead just because of Snyder’s association with the project, coupled with the trailers that suggested this might be a little bit of a winking farce. I was clearly very mistaken, but I stuck the movie out, despite its bloated length for something that boils down to a story about a team of mercenaries fighting their way into a zombie-infested Las Vegas for a big score of abandoned loot and then failing to fight their way out.

What I want to emphasize, though, is that it wasn’t the gore that turned me off to this movie. That would be an easy, and wrong, assumption to make. No, it’s not as simple as Eric Can’t Handle Scary Gross Things. Rather, it’s the emptiness at the heart of the film. They’re fighting and dying for money, dealing with repeated betrayals, in the final moments before a nuclear strike makes the zombie threat irrelevant–or, you know, it would have become irrelevant if not for their fucked-up heist attempt and resultant infected survivor. The characters have no larger goals to fight for. Found family tropes are used sparingly, presumably in an attempt to make you care about the doomed team’s fates, and you could argue that this is a movie about a father reconnecting with his daughter–but if so, that fails too. The father and daughter don’t reconnect. The father dies saving the daughter, who was only at risk, at the end of the day, because her father got her involved in the first place. I refuse to accept that the daughter’s grief over losing her father–and having to put his zombified form down–represents a healing of the relationship. There is no relationship. The father failed to fix that relationship, only managed to even understand how he had screwed up their relationship toward the very end, barely managed to save the daughter but saddled her with a lot more trauma, and doomed everyone else on the team.

That’s a much darker, more depressing version of the apocalypse than a movie in which the tropes of apocalypse are used to metaphorically represent the fracturing and healing of family bonds as children mature and leave the home. And that movie about family, hell, it has an actual theme, an actual message, something to think on afterward. Something more than we can all be assholes or the desire for wealth makes us make bad choices or people can die at any time as life is unfair or some other tired trope requiring no deeper examination.

I don’t need happy endings or family-friendly ratings to appease me, though. The first two Alien movies rank high among my favorite sci-fi movies, despite their thematic (and literal) darkness, violence, and gore. Yes, they’re well-crafted movies with great special effects, distinctive settings, and actors that manage to sell the sheer horror and despair of the situation. But they’re also about scrappy, normal humans fighting for something bigger than themselves. In the first film, the team of blue-collar workers tries to clear out the xenomorph to keep each other alive. Sure, only Ripley makes it out, but not for lack of trying–and she even makes a point of returning for the cat! Then, in Aliens, she’s willing to join an expedition back to the planet that doomed her crew because she wants to ensure that any remaining threat is eliminated. And even despite her trauma and loss, she fights to save who she can. The suggestion of a found family in Newt, Hicks, and Bishop gives the movie some heart even amongst all the death. On the flip side, it’s one of two reasons that I’ve never been a fan of Alien 3. First, Ripley once again loses everyone she cares about in the opening moments of the movie. Second, she dies not fighting for someone but only against the threat of the xenomorph queen in her that would have killed her anyway (not to mention that even this sacrifice is undone in yet another sequel with Alien Resurrection).

Look, I get it. There are evil people who do evil things in the world. And many more people often make selfish, self-serving, amoral choices. And good does not always triumph over evil; evil often wins. Evil still wins day to day, in oppressive and corrupt systems of governance and in small-minded bigotry and in interpersonal hostility and in petty crime. But I try to act on my principles, and I like to look to people who made a difference by acting on their principles, and while I make many mistakes I still have something I strive for. I get that the world can be a dark place, and I don’t think it’s wrong that there is art, dumb and smart, that is dark and nihilistic. But nihilism repulses me, and even in darkness I look for light, I look for principles and guiding purpose, I look for what people are fighting for and not just the odds they’re fighting against. I’m uncomfortable with settling for meaninglessness. Maybe some people, maybe many people, think that reflects a naivete on my part. Maybe that’s what it really does mean. But I will still always favor stories that have heart, that have purpose, that aren’t just showcases of loss and suffering.

To be clear, I’m not trying to snipe at the horror genre as a whole. But Army of the Dead–which really isn’t a horror film, despite the use of zombies–uniquely highlighted the unsettling hollowness I find when pop art portrays atrocities for their own sake. Most fiction has some level of escapism baked in, anyhow. Please don’t begrudge me how I choose to escape.

Review: Making Contact

Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Existence by Alan Steinfeld

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


I was provided an advanced copy of Making Contact, apparently because of my interest in the much better UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record by Leslie Kean. Making Contact is a book for true believers only, those already caught up in the mythology of conspiracy theories, alien abductions, and interdimensional communication. Only the especially credulous, already well-versed in the layers of contradictory alien contact lore, could truly enjoy this book. As such, this is a case where the book is just a bad fit for me.

But I unfortunately have to discourage anyone else from reading. We live in an age in which misinformation spreads rapidly and easily, and this book represents exactly the sort of dangerous misinformation we should be avoiding. People without strong critical thinking skills might be persuaded, for instance, by the chapter in this book written by social scientists misexplaining and misapplying complex hard science fields like quantum physics to justify disjointed narratives of alien/UFO superpowers.

I’d also suggest that this book is the sort of thing that undermines any real interest in engaging seriously with the phenomenon of unidentified flying objects. I’m sure there’s an explanation for those 5% of sightings that can’t be explained currently even with sufficient data about the sighting, and that explanation may not be very interesting but it would still be worthwhile to know. I’d love to see serious research into that phenomenon. But why would any serious scientist want to touch the subject if the people shouting most loudly about it also insist that the mere existence of UFOs indicates interstellar or interdimensional beings visiting us not-so-surreptitiously on Earth? What legitimate researcher would bother to think there’s anything there if they’re always hearing about the phenomenon in the context of stories about alien abductions, mystical energy fields, telepathic contactees, and elaborate but entirely unsupported conspiracy theories?

Furthermore, the book feels a bit rushed, perhaps because of the need to put something out in advance of the release to the public of the DOD report on UFOs that should be made available by the end of June. Of course, since this book’s publication, it’s become pretty clear that the report, as per usual, cannot definitively state what the phenomenon is. That’s to be expected and not reflective of a conspiracy but just the reality that it’s hard to verify every case of something strange seen in the sky after the fact. But of course, the essays included in the book seem to believe that this is all part of a rolling buildup to full Disclosure, the almost Rapture-level event anticipated in the far-out ufology community in which the government will come clean and reveal the full depths of contact with extraterrestrials, complete with revelations about its sordid history of involvement with benevolent and malevolent ETs and their remarkable technologies.

It’s a shame, too, because not all of the essays are bad. Nick Pope’s essay, while increasingly speculative toward the end, is actually a very level take on the UFO phenomenon and rather clearly and logically explains why it’s very unlikely that there’s any big government conspiracy at all. A transcript of a talk by the late psychiatrist and alien abduction researcher John Mack offered a nuanced accounting of his work and speculation about what it could mean–and while it’s certainly not a convincing argument for legitimate alien abduction occurrences, it’s an interesting reminder that these experiences are very real to the people reporting them. Finally, the book excerpt by famous abductee/writer Whitley Strieber and the fascinatingly fragmented and abstract essay by abductee/performer Henrietta Weekes were interesting insights into the perspectives of those actually reporting an “alien abduction” experience. I think it’s notable that the essays I’ve cited downplay the significance of the actual UFO phenomenon and put more weight into subjective experience related to a separate phenomenon, that of the reported alien abduction, experiences that seem very real to the alleged abductees. However, I think it would be far more interesting to read about the experience as a psychosocial phenomenon, rather than as further support for those desperately looking for proof of alien contact, no matter how incompatible the various sources of evidence.

I’d suggest looking for writings by Pope, Mack, Strieber, or Weekes outside of this anthology, where they can be engaged with (even if not accepted/believed) on their own terms.

View all my reviews

Finally, if you’re interested in reading something worthwhile on the history of investigation into the UFO phenomenon, I’d strongly recommend the April 30th essay “How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus on The New Yorker.

Review: Camp Cretaceous Season 3

Camp Cretaceous returned on May 21st with a 10-part third season, and I found it to be an improvement over the sophomore round in just about every way. While–spoiler alert–the kids more or less retain plot armor, they are pushed more than ever before, and their lives are threatened and the stakes are higher than ever.

We’re reunited with the Camp Fam as they fail yet another attempt to escape the island and literally return to the drawing board. They’ve fallen into a “comfortable” routine on the island. They know how to survive its prehistoric hazards. They’ve had enough time without the constant threat of death to form some cozy bonds and petty rivalries. But things soon take a turn for the worse, as the escaped hybrid only hinted at in the last season begins to wreak havoc on the neo-Mesozoic ecosystem. The kids suddenly find the park animals acting erratically and dangerously, and they’re hunted by an antisocial killing machine that doesn’t act in a predictable way. Added to the mix, we–and they–learn that six months have passed since the events of Jurassic World, and mercenary teams soon arrive with Dr. Wu to recover needed genetic materials and research for his continued hybridization projects. (We’re introduced to that last element in one of the best sequences in the season, which directly dovetails with the opening moments of Fallen Kingdom.) The kids are torn between the need to escape, the drive to stop Dr. Wu from furthering his amoral research, and the hope of saving the dinosaurs from re-extinction at the claws of the loose hybrid monster on the island.

All the kids have satisfying arcs this time around, without the frustrating tendency to regress at key dramatic moments that was so common in the earlier seasons. They have history together now, and the show built on and used that to further challenge the characters, rather than tonally resetting them at times to create convenient interrelationship tension. Once more, though, the highlight of the season for me was Ben, who matured so much over season two and now is really struggling with the idea of leaving the island and his beloved Bumpy behind. It was a fun way to continue pushing on this character. He didn’t need to overcome fear; he’d conquered that. He didn’t need to develop independence or survival skills; he was already forced to do so. He’s loyal and strong. His weakness now lies in his rashness, in sometimes being a little too independent, and being uncertain about his ability to give his new life up and return to normal.

The art and animation look better than ever. Once more, we get additional prehistoric reptiles added to the field: setting aside the hybrid freak, this season sees a return of the Dimorphodons from Fallen Kingdom, and new-to-the-franchise Monolophosaurus and Ouranosaurus also show up. The dinosaurs look great. There aren’t any conspicuously big, flat plains sequences with reused dinosaur assets just standing about. Their animation makes them seem physically present, although at this point the show seems to have leaned into the whole pseudo-claymation aesthetic. The human character models are about the same, but environmental effects, like lighting, seem improved, and the show definitely shows an attention to detail in tracking continuity in clothing changes, dirt and grime, and even simple things like Brooklynn’s roots growing out as time has passed.

The hybrid dinosaur looks like an impressively disturbing monstrous first stab at creating the sort of creatures that could become Indominus or Indoraptor. But this new “original” hybrid, Scorpios, is also somewhat revolting to look at. Its proportions, its movements, are all off. It’s an effective monster, and its presence pushed the plot forward, but I sure hope this is truly the last hybrid we see (you know, outside of the fact that all the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are hybrids that don’t look exactly like their real-life counterparts because, in-universe, they used DNA from sources like frogs to fill the gaps in the sequences).

There’s one dinosaur return I wasn’t expecting: that of Blue. This could have been heavy-handed, but she’s used sparingly, and it actually turned out to be a nice encounter in which this unique Velociraptor, established to have special characteristics of intelligence and empathy, is given a reason to develop some wary trust of humans. It’s not a necessary foundational step to her sparing Owen and his friends at the end of Fallen Kingdom, but it works as a little stepping stone on the path to that moment, with the ground having been laid, of course, by Owen himself as her trainer.

This season has bigger stakes, clearer theme and purpose, deeper character development, further improved art and animation, and direct continuity with the film universe that gives it a sense of greater relevance. It’s a high point for the show so far, and I hope that it continues for at least another season.


Quick season-end spoiler discussion here. They’re finally off the island, but it seems a certain predator might be hidden away aboard the ship. If there isn’t another season, that leaves some dire implications. After all, they have a flash drive showing Dr. Wu’s research, and they have every desire to see him face justice. And they know that he was back on the island in an attempt to continue his research. But he seems to have evaded any serious consequences and successfully escaped any scrutiny about ongoing research by the time of Fallen Kingdom.

On the other hand, it’s probably worth noting that the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Survival Guide reports that “Dr. Henry Wu was found guilty of bioethical misconduct and stripped of all his credentials” (p. 20). I’m not sure that this line in a tie-in book aimed at kids substantiates that he did face some sort of penalties; it’s also not clear to me exactly what specific crimes he was found guilty of, or by what sort of judicial system. Again, given the audience, and given the fact that the in-universe nature of the text is that of a guide quickly assembled on last-minute notice by Claire Dearing for her Dinosaur Protection Group team before their Lockwood Foundation-backed mission to Isla Nublar, it could just be an inaccurate turn of phrase that might refer to a finding of fault in some sort of civil proceeding, or perhaps a finding of ethical misconduct by a professional board. It would be satisfying if the kids’ efforts led to some of these suggested consequences.

Given that we last see the kids aboard a yacht in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a perhaps hungry mystery dinosaur trapped on board, there’s not a guarantee that they meet a happy end! Of course, even without another season, we could come up with alternatives to address this ambiguity, even if it turns out that Dr. Wu never did face serious consequences between films. Perhaps something happens to the disc but they’re okay. Perhaps, like in the original Jurassic Park novel, the Costa Rican government detains these survivors and attempts to cover things up to save further international embarrassment. Perhaps their findings aren’t enough to persuade any governing body to take action. Perhaps it’s something else entirely! I’m sure the show won’t kill the kids and isn’t considering that as a serious outcome, but it’s still enough for me to anxiously await the next season.

(For a bit of a reality check and some reassurance about the fates of these kids and their left-behind pet dinosaur, and actually for some interesting thoughts from Colin Trevorrow in general, read this from The Hollywood Reporter.)

Review: Surviving Death (Book)

Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife by Leslie Kean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Just like Leslie Kean’s UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record was for the UFO phenomenon, her Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife is a great introductory text about contemporary evidence for the afterlife geared at a mainstream audience. It’s not an examination of religious belief, and Kean presents herself as agnostic on the subject although inclined to believe that consciousness continues beyond death. She tries to maintain objectivity while also being explicit about her subjective perspective and personal biases; she weaves her own personal experiences into her reporting in a way that makes the book more intimate, more personally authentic, and yet more troubled. I’ll get to that more later.

The first thing you have to get past when reading this book is that Kean is not at all agnostic on the subject of psychic abilities. Quoting British psychologist David Fontana, she writes in the introduction, “Psychic abilities are a matter of fact, not of belief.” She then insists, “The reader will encounter the reality of the most refined psychic functioning throughout this book, and by the end will have no questions as to its existence.” I doubt that many readers, not previously inclined to believe in psychic abilities, will have shifted the needle on their views at all by the end. I certainly still have plenty of questions, having only been primed to accept that there may be some form of psychic ability in some humans thanks to having read Annie Jacobsen’s Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis. Nonetheless, you have to at least be willing to accept that parapsychologists and other paranormal researchers typically accept psychic abilities as existing to some degree or other, as this forms the big debate for many of these researchers in the narrative: is the evidence we have of some continuation of consciousness beyond death actually supportive of that hypothesis, or is it only reflective of the immense psychic abilities that some living agents may possess to access and synthesize otherwise hidden or unknown information sources that would often be separated without any clear connection? By the end of the book, I do believe that an objective and fair-minded reader will have to acknowledge that if at least some of the phenomena reported are genuine, then one of these possibilities must be true, and the living-agent hypothesis feels like a remarkably conservative position, a recognition that it’s at least as outlandish, if not more so, to make the great number of assumptions needed to reach a hypothesis in which consciousness somehow survives death. Either way, you should be prepared for some rather interesting discussion regarding the concept of non-local consciousness and how it might interact with one’s physical brain–something not presented as fact but as informed speculation in an attempt to explain some of the things described.

So what is described? Kean slowly constructs a narrative of the potential afterlife by building on one section of study after another, starting with reincarnation accounts, moving on to near-death experiences and “actual-death” experiences, providing connective tissue with overlapping accounts between those with NDEs and some of the details children provide about what happens between reincarnations, then steaming on to the end with mental mediumship, trance mediumship, apparitions, and physical mediumship. The plausibility of the experiences started off high for me and gradually decreased over time. (In fact, I’m already rather partial to reincarnation narratives because the best ones seem, to me at least, to be rather difficult to fake without the active involvement of the researcher in the fraud, and the accounts can’t really be brushed away as merely coincidental or absorbed through environment; Old Souls by Tom Shroder, which is referenced by Kean in Surviving Death, turned me onto the parapsychological research into this field, which at its very least is compelling as a form of oral history/folklore collection.)

Kean is quite aware of the decreasing-plausibility concern, and I think she spends an unusual amount of time and space on mediumship and mental mediumship in particular because the field has such a strong history of fraud and resultant public skepticism. She is convinced, along with some other paranormal researchers, that there are legitimate mediums, and I have to say that what she shares of the readings by the exceptional mental mediums she has seen certainly suggests access to knowledge they could not otherwise possess that probably wouldn’t be possible with advance research or cold reading. But physical mediumship has always seemed too razzle-dazzle to be credible, seemingly set up with the intent to deceive, with the closet behind the medium and the darkness or low red light required for anything to happen. Plus, everything else works within an understanding that perhaps consciousness is non-local and can survive death, but it does not have many mechanisms to interact with our material plane, in the dimensions our physical bodies inhabit, and it may fundamentally be something unverifiable, but it doesn’t require a rethinking of our physical reality. However, physical mediumship, with its ectoplasm and conjurations of hands and feet and sometimes whole forms, with its vanishing and materialization of objects, with its projection of strange voices, reads like a bizarre stage show and would require reexamination of how we think the world works in pretty significant ways. It’s a bridge too far for me, and I suspect that will be the case for many people. Kean’s fighting a losing battle there, and her narration of sessions she has attended doesn’t do much for me. Surely she is convinced, and I truly believe she experienced what she writes, but I think that this is just evidence that she was sufficiently fooled by the performers. Many intelligent, educated, skeptical people can be fooled by an especially convincing hustle, so she would hardly be in bad company, but I just can’t accept the extraordinary claims invited by physical mediums without extraordinary evidence that will never be forthcoming. I suppose nothing’s impossible, but I’m not willing to let down my guard and believe just about anything simply because it could possibly be true. I think that’s the very path to the really whacky, far-out-there High Strangeness crowd.

While I think it was a mistake to devote so much time to physical mediumship, it is nonetheless the case that Kean has probably written the most persuasive argument possible to take the practice seriously. And in doing so, her interweaving of her personal experiences in the wake of her grief over losing her brother and a close friend makes the book something far more personal and emotional than I would have expected, even as she often keeps a rather clinical, dry, and objective writing style. It’s certainly a far more revealing book about the author as a person than UFOs was, and I appreciate the vulnerability, even though I can’t reward it with full belief.

Surviving Death presents a series of fascinating narratives, and I’ve barely touched on all that is covered for such a relatively small volume. Much like UFOs, it has its flaws, but it’s essential reading for its paranormal subject matter.



View all my reviews

Review: Amazing Dinoworld

Amazing Dinoworld is a tiny documentary miniseries released in 2019, currently available on a couple of the streaming platforms out there. I recently watched it and rather enjoyed it for its contemporary and impressively life-like depictions of dinosaurs.

Miniseries still manages to feel like an overstatement, as it’s just two episodes, each just under 50 minutes. It’s actually a little mystifying as to why it’s a two-parter instead of a single feature-length documentary film. It’s true that there’s a clear content split between the episodes, with the first focused on dinosaurs and the second on marine reptiles, but given that there are a couple of clear breaks in segments within each episode, it would have been quite easy to connect everything together.

Despite the brevity of the “season,” it covers an incredible amount of content. The first episode focuses on the impact of feathers on the continued evolution of dinosaurs and showcases a combination of scientific fact and speculation about what the adaptation of feathers might have allowed dinosaurs to do and become. Meanwhile, the second episode is largely about mosasaurs–their evolution, their ecology, and speculation about birthing and hunting strategies. A diverse, compelling, dynamic prehistoric world is depicted over the course of the two episodes.

In many ways, Amazing Dinoworld feels like a considerably updated spiritual successor to the Walking with Dinosaurs series, with really impressive reconstructions that combine live-action footage and computer-generated images. I thought it was great that Amazing Dinoworld‘s creators chose to focus mostly on lesser-known dinosaurs–although most would still be somewhat familiar to even the most casual fans of these creatures like myself. The first episode’s dinosaur protagonists are Deinocheirus in Mongolia and Troodon in the American arctic, with a supporting cast that includes Avimimus, Tarbosaurus, and Zanabazar for the former and Pachyrhinosaurus (with a speculatively thick and long keratinous horn over the flattened boss of the skull) and Nanuqsaurus for the latter. The second episode turns its attention to marine reptiles including Mosasaurus and Plesiosaurus; the large fish Xiphactinus; a pterosaur, Azhdarcho, and dinosaurs including Abelisaurus, a thoroughly modernized depiction of Spinosaurus, and two versions of the ever-popular Tyrannosaurus (one feathered like most of the dinosaur and pterosaur models in the show, one un-feathered for some reason).

There were some good interviews with paleontologists and depictions of fossil evidence, and there were a lot of fun speculative appearances and behaviors, but the show didn’t always make clear just how speculative some of it was. Furthermore, there was a generally oversimplified history of the developing theories about dinosaurs, their behaviors, and their evolution that made everything sound a bit newer in conception or less complicated than it actually was, but I suppose that’s the nature of a two-hour science documentary. Despite this, the overarching narration was helpful in describing what was happening on-screen and provided informative additional content, while the split between the life-like reconstructions of the prehistoric animals, interviews, and fossil depictions was fairly balanced.

The show was unfortunately still heavily male-dominated but was fairly international in its coverage of sites and scientists. However, it didn’t take long to recognize that a great deal of the scientists and filmmakers were Japanese. It appears that Amazing Dinoworld underwent a bit of an evolution of its own, as it was apparently originally released in 2018 as Dinosaur Superworld in Japan, if a couple of fan sites can be relied upon. That point is just a curiosity for me, not substantive; I don’t think I’ve seen a dinosaur documentary before that wasn’t produced by Americans or Brits.

Regardless of its origins, and in spite of its relative brevity, Amazing Dinoworld is easily one of the best documentaries about Mesozoic life that I’ve ever seen.

Review: Sasquatch (2021)

Sasquatch is a moody, unnerving documentary on Hulu that has very little to do with Bigfoot at all, and I’m here to recommend it. The three-part series follows investigative journalist David Holthouse as he pursues a story based on a wild conversation overheard on a weed farm in 1993: allegedly, a couple of guys working for a weed farmer in the Emerald Triangle of California stumbled on the aftermath of a Sasquatch massacre in which three men were killed. Of course, that’s not the real story, and decades later, Holthouse tries to find out what actually happened. He never finds a certain answer, but he does produce a couple likely options, including a version of events that, while still rather far-fetched, probably represents something like the truth.

The first episode does spend time with the Bigfoot myth, interviewing local Bigfoot hunters to lay some groundwork for the bizarre and obscure rumor of the Sasquatch triple homicide. But the narrative quickly settles in the dark underbelly of the black market cannabis trade in California, finding its home in paranoid Back to Landers, violent Hells Angels, unreliable tweakers, quick-to-vanish migrant workers, and other oddballs and outcasts. All of this is intermixed with hauntingly beautiful footage of the northern California forests, with their moody contrasts of dark and light beneath old growth canopies. Here is a land where anything could, and apparently does, happen.

The myth of Bigfoot and the rumors traded within this uneasy community of weed growers become intertwined as the miniseries progresses, and Bigfoot returns to prominence as a figure of myth toward the very end to be juxtaposed with the monsters and contemporary myths that Holthouse has encountered. All are surreal and frightening conjurations of the outsider. The nuanced intermingling of myth and reality at the end offers a fascinatingly complex bit of philosophical musing to cap the show off. But Holthouse remains grounded and down to earth throughout.

Anyone who’s a fan of true crime or has an interest in obscure, even seemingly alien, alternative cultures should give this docuseries a viewing. It’s sort of the anti-Tiger King, focused on another bizarre, drug-fueled, self-absorbed, and ruthless counter-culture operating at best in the gray areas of the law, but without the mockery of its principal subjects that last year’s social media darling show delighted in. Sasquatch humanizes even as it shows us the monsters who live just outside of our view.

Two management styles: Planet Zoo and Jurassic World Evolution

I recently picked up Planet Zoo, and I’m enjoying it. It’s a great spiritual successor to the Zoo Tycoon series, and it has an incredibly in-depth level of customization that I’ve barely scratched the surface of (working through the campaign, relying heavily on the prefab stuff at present). It’s also got absolutely beautiful vistas and lovely depictions of lifelike animals, plus a good combination of animal and visitor AIs with a robust in-game economy.

Since childhood, I’ve always been fond of zoological park sims in particular. That includes Frontier Developments’ Planet Zoo and Jurassic World: Evolution, but I can trace the fascination back to Blue Tongue Entertainment’s Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis; the original Zoo Tycoon and Zoo Tycoon 2 from Blue Fang Games, including their expansion packs, which of course added dinosaurs; and the game that started it all, the 1993 Manley & Associates educational game title, DinoPark Tycoon. I’ve always loved zoos and animals, and dinosaurs in particular, so it’s no surprise that I’d continue to be drawn to these games, even though the broader genre of management sims hasn’t kept me as engaged.

Something I’ve been thinking about with Planet Zoo is how it contrasts with the themes and goals of Jurassic World: Evolution. Given that they’re both games by Frontier Developments, released just a year apart from each other, I find the contrast rather interesting, and I think it reflects conscious choices on the part of the developer to characterize both games quite distinctly.

Jurassic World: Evolution, released in 2018, has a profit-focused, exploitative character to it. You play as a nameless corporate executive brought in to run the Jurassic World parks while balancing the needs of the Science, Security, and Entertainment divisions. All of these divisions are fundamentally guided by corporate greed, and to keep them pacified you need to do things like increase the quality and availability of guest services; raise park revenues; research, modify, and release new dinosaurs; and even engage in rather ethically dubious pursuits that include pitting dinosaurs against each other to attract more guests or even to sell off dinosaurs to who-knows-what other corporations to make a little extra profit. All of the divisions have a darker side. Science is perfectly willing to exploit the animals and endanger lives in the pursuit of more knowledge. Security is interested in weaponizing the dinosaurs for other parties. And Entertainment wants more than anything else to ensure that guest satisfaction, and the resultant stream of dollars, stays high, regardless of what that means for the welfare of the dinosaurs. The Secrets of Dr. Wu DLC expands on this dark side, as you get further caught up in the twisted experimentations of the megalomaniacal Dr. Wu. Claire’s Sanctuary initially pushes back on this, as dinosaurs are saved from certain re-extinction on Isla Nublar, but the “Sanctuary” quickly becomes another money-making machine for the Hammond Foundation and Ingen, with guest revenues fueling profit quotas from the corporate backers. Only Return to Jurassic Park truly bucks the trend by returning to the immediate aftermath of Jurassic Park in an alternate timeline in which Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm commit to making the park a safe way for guests to observe real dinosaurs; their priorities are genuine guest safety and a greater understanding of these restored creatures. Even so, Hammond and his assistant are there to push you to keep making the park bigger, better, and more fabulous to drive profits.

Planet Zoo, released in 2019, can’t ditch the profit motivation essential to management sims, but that wouldn’t make sense to do away with it entirely–after all, without funds, you can’t care for the animals or retain the staff needed to keep the park running. But the emphasis is different, instead focused on conservation and education, themes emphasized as soon as the initial tutorial missions in the campaign. In this game’s narrative, you actually design a friendly avatar for yourself, and you’re introduced to a couple of warm, caring people who manage these parks because they want to help preserve Earth’s biodiversity by spearheading breeding initiatives for endangered and threatened species and by raising public awareness. Rather than selling animals, you can release animals into the wild to gain “conservation credits,” which can sometimes be used to obtain new animals for the zoo in lieu of cash. And you can’t just send off undesirable animals to benefit. The animals to be released are those born in the zoo; they must have reached maturity; and their value for release is determined by factors like their health, age, and conservation status of the species. Poor animal welfare, or allowing inbreeding of animals, results in negative consequences for your park. An inspector reviews your zoo at regular intervals, ensuring that the animals have a good quality of life, the campus is cleanly, and guests are actually being educated about the animals. Profit margins and guest accommodations don’t factor into that rating (although, of course, to keep the park going, you need happy guests to buy tickets and merch and donate extra money so that you can pay the staff to care for the animals to provide the education and conservation benefits that your zoo can offer).

At the end of the day, you’re still doing many of the same things in Planet Zoo as in Jurassic World: Evolution, plotting out exhibits and guest facilities and staff buildings, monitoring income and expense trends, and ensuring a gradually improving quality rating, but the narrative and mechanic differences are part of the reason why these two game experiences ultimately feel so very different.


Bonus cute baby animal content: