Zoo (Season 1) – TV Series Review

I first learned about “Zoo” from a Netflix Philippines notification, informing me season one of the series was uploaded on the streaming platform.

I was extra tired at the time, so the idea of watching a  mindless television show where animals attack humans and take over the world really appealed to me. As expected the show does feature plenty of animals killing humans. But it also offers more.

“Zoo” provides an equally intelligent and exciting look at an end of the world scenario where animals have evolved specifically to combat humans and their technology. Technology being, according to the show, the only reason why humans are at the top of the food chain.

This science-fiction drama thriller based on a novel of the same name by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge brings together an unlikely team:

American zoologist Jackson Oz (James Wolk), safari guide Abraham Kenyatta (Nonso Anozie),  journalist Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly), veterinary pathologist Dr. Mitch Morgan (Billy Burke), and French intelligence investigator Chloue Tousignant (Nora Arnezeder).

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From left to right: Chloue Tousignant, Jackson Oz, Dr. Mitch Morgan, Jamie Campbell, and Abraham Kenyatta

Their goal is to find a solution to the animal problem. The sci-fi angle of the series comes from the fact that the problem could be traced to a biotechnology company behind the production of staple goods sold worldwide, from animal feeds to veterinary medicines. Hence, the inclusion of a journalist in the team.

“Zoo” is a very smart and entertaining television series. It begins with a series of animal attacks. I was expecting it to be “The Walking Dead,” but with animals instead of zombies. So far, that hasn’t happened yet.

Still, the rise of the animal kingdom happens quickly as humans struggle to adapt to the situation.

With so many animals in the world, I wondered how the show would feature them? Fortunately, they didn’t run down the list of scariest animals (imagine sharks, piranhas, anacondas gone wild) and the world’s armies retaliating.

Instead the show focuses on animals relevant to the characters and the places they visit in their search for a solution. For example, lions and leopards  appear in Africa, where Jackson and Abraham host safari tours.

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I also enjoyed how the focused on the mutations of particular animals during a few animal-of-the-week episodes in the middle of the series.

Rats, for example, evolved so they could reproduce asexually. This allowed them to increase in number much faster than they could be exterminated. They also developed a taste for human blood.

Cats, on the other hand, developed the ability to communicate long distances with their entire species. This unified, long-distance language ability enabled them to work in teams and plan attacks without congregating physically, among other things.

Bears developed extra strong carapaces to protect against bullets and tranquilizer darts. They also gained the ability to enter and exit hibernation at will.

Bats began swarming around and attacking devices emitting electronic signals. They also attacked cellular phones—take that you Pokemon Go players!—and plane turbines, blocked sunlight from reaching solar panels in Antarctica. True story.

The team made progress quickly. They narrowed their focus to finding a cure that would devolve the animals back to their regular state, and this search for the cure is what brings the show’s first season to an epic conclusion.

Sure, you can question the science and ethics behind “Zoo”. But as long as you don’t dig too deep. If you accept this show as the intelligent and thrilling fictional television entertainment it is, then you will definitely enjoy this visit to the zoo!

Coffee Bean and Tea Reads Rating:

5 Beans out of 5
5 Beans out of 5
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Wayward Pines Season 1 – TV Series Review

Wayward Pines (2015) is mystery, thriller, and science fiction television series based on the Wayward Pines trilogy of novels by Blake Crouch. The show was created by Chad Hodge and produced by veteran filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan.

The first season centers on Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) a U.S. Secret Service agent on his way to investigate the disappearance of two fellow agents in the town of Wayward Pines, Idaho. On the way, Ethan and his partner get into a car accident. Ethan wakes up hospitalized inside Wayward Pines. Soon, he finds himself unable to leave the town.

His investigating reveals that one of his partners is dead, while the other—his former lover Kate Hewson (Carla Gugino)—is alive and married. Why has she settled down in this town, and not reported back to the U.S. Secret Service. And why is she so afraid of speaking with him? “They’re watching us,” she says.

Soon, Ethan discovers Wayward Pines is more than a strange small town. For one, it’s surrounded by an electrified fence. Any attempt at escape is punished by a public execution known as a “reckoning,” carried out by Arnold Pope (Terrence Howard), the town sheriff.

Everyone in this town is acting strange, one way or another. All of them seem to be keeping secrets from Ethan who continues searching for the truth.

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Meanwhile, Ethan’s wife Theresa (Shannyn Sossamon) and son Ben (Charlie Tahan), drive to Wayward Pines to investigate Ethan’s mysterious disappearance. They too get into a car accident and wake up hospitalized and trapped in Wayward Pines.

Although I love watching small town television mysteries like Broadchurch (2013-) and Harper’s Island (2009), I was a bit skeptical about Wayward Pines, given M. Night Shymalan’s track record as a filmmaker. I love his earlier work, but his more recent films keep getting worse and worse. The Last Airbender (2010), for example.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by how good the series’s pilot episode was—and M. Night both produced and directed that episode! Maybe M. Night has found his true calling as a television series producer? But that pilot episode convinced me to give the series a chance, and I’m delighted that I did.

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Among the many stellar cast members of Wayward Pines (Source: 1)

Every episode of the first season gives off an ominous vibe. There is never a dull moment throughout the series, and the suspense built at a steady pace.

The cast was also excellent. I was especially terrified by Melissa Leo’s portrayal of Nurse Pam. Even the secret service agent Ethan was more afraid of her than he was of Sheriff Pope, who carried out the public killings in Wayward Pines. Another standout was Megan Fisher who played Hope Davis, the former hypnotherapist now principal of Wayward Pines Academy.

Science fiction elements are introduced in later episodes. This may surprise viewers who were expecting a usual small town mystery show. However, I very much enjoy the sci-fi genre. The sci-fi elements were a welcome addition for me.

VERDICT: Wayward Pines puts a sci-fi spin on the small town television mystery  genre, and is a thrill to watch. It’s also a welcome back to form for M. Night Shyamalan. If you’re a sci-fi fan searching for an intelligent and entertaining television mystery I strongly recommend watching season 1 of Wayward Pines.

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Definitely one television event you shouldn’t miss! (Source: 1)

Coffee Bean and Tea Reads Rating:

5 Beans out of 5
5 Beans out of 5

Pale Cocoon – Animated Film Review

Title: Pale Cocoon
Director: Yasuhiro Yoshiura
Writer: Yasuhiro Yoshiura
Year Released: 2006
Run Time: 23 minutes

Pale Cocoon is an OVA written and directed by Yasuhiro Yoshiura. This being the first Yoshiura film I ever watched, I had no idea what to expect from it. I was as surprised by the short 23-minute length of the animation, as I was with its dark and artificial underground setting. Admittedly, I didn’t read the synopsis beforehand, and was anticipating lots of nature, butterflies, and such.

Pale Cocoon is set in the distant future, where the environment has been so badly damaged that the earth’s surface has become unlivable for humanity. To survive, humans dig themselves an underground sanctuary deep within the earth’s core.

Ura and Riko, this story’s protagonists, were born inside this underground world. They both work for the The Bureau of Record Excavation, in charge of gathering, restoring, and segregating the last remaining records of humanity’s past.

“It was better not to understand. About the green world… and that humans destroyed that world.” – Riko, Pale Cocoon

More people leave the bureau each year, as fewer of them are interested in learning about their ancestor’s mistakes. Riko is staring to have doubts about her work. She questions Ura about his overzealous dedication to studying all the materials he uncovers at work. Despite this, Ura continues searching for more truths. Until one day he discovers a strange video.

The concept of the archives—of gathering, studying, and cataloging materials from before the world’s surface became unlivable—drew me into this film. I admired Ura for his dedication to his job, his fascination with records of the past. Like him, I was dismayed by the fact that less and less people wanted to learn more about the original green and blue earth because all the information they uncovered was so depressing.

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Ura continues to search for the truth behind humanity’s past even though many of his colleagues and friends have lost hope. Source: 1

How could their ancestors have been so stupid? How could they let the environment be destroyed?

And so the present-day humans in this film are essentially trapping themselves in a monochrome world where they are protected from the horrors of their past and the present state of the earth’s surface. Perhaps this apathy towards learning the truth is understandable. It’s not like they can do anything to reverse earth’s degradation anyway.

But what will Ura find in pursuit of the truth? What secrets does the mysterious video he discovers hold? What will be revealed when he rides up to the planet’s surface? When he breaks out of his pale cocoon? Perhaps, he rushes towards his inevitable death? But what if he discovers something else?

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Has Riko given up hope? 

I believe that humans are meant to live on earth as it is today, not in enclosed tunnels underneath the earth’s surface, nor other similar accommodations. So it is natural for Ura to search for his real home, while refusing to accept his present reality. That most of humanity seems resigned to living in a box is just sad.

And it is Ura’s struggle for truth and freedom that makes Yoshiura’s animated short so gripping and exciting, if a bit simple and rushed…and that music video was just weird.

Looks-wise, the sepia and monochromatic tones used throughout the film were perfect in conveying a mood of loneliness. It also portrays a detachment from the earth and all its colors. It may not have the hyper realistic pastel imagery we’re used to seeing in modern anime films, but Pale Coon has its own understated beauty nonetheless.

Coffee Bean and Tea Reads Rating:

4 out of 5

4 Beans

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi – Book Review

Title: The Windup Girl
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Release Date: September 1st 2009
Publisher: Night Shade Books

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is a world-building masterclass. Imagine a post-apocalyptic Bangkok under imminent threat of being swallowed by the sea, in a world devastated by global warming. Its only defense a sea wall that must be protected at all costs.

“We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods. Your only difficulty is your unwillingness to unleash your potential fully upon it.”  – Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl

Picture a world where so many species of plants and animals are extinct that calories have become the number one source of income and power for governments and corporations; Where new species of farm crops and fruits have to be genetically engineered repeatedly every time a new strain of blight taints the food, making it deadly for human consumption.

Here is a world where bio-engineered animals like megodonts (similar to mammoths; used to power machinery) and cheshires (feral cats with camouflage capabilities that scavenge on human remains) have become a normal part of human life. Here is the world where genetically engineered humans (e.g. windups) like Emiko exist.

“We rest in the hands of a fickle god. He plays on our behalf only for entertainment, and he will close his eyes and sleep if we fail to engage his intellect.” – Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl

Thailand, a country known for weathering constant political upheavals and natural disasters, is a perfect setting for this science-fiction novel. As the story progresses we see, the tensions between government, corporate, religious, environmental, and other factions constantly vying for power and supremacy.

We see how Thailand’s constitutional monarchy barely resists the influence and dominance of the farang (a Thai word meaning “a person of white race”), while the outside world continues pressuring the Thais to open trade routes and share biological research.

We see the people living and making a living in Bangkok struggle to survive, to find meaning in their lives, when a single spark could result in many lives lost, perhaps an entire nation destroyed.

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I love this book cover! I would buy the book, just for the cover. Source: 1

At the center of everything is Emiko, a windup girl. Once a respected Japanese courtesan, she now works at a Thai brothel, where she is mocked and ridiculed for her stutter-stop body movements, her always-submissive biological engineering. As Emiko continues to struggle against her design and dream of freedom, the tension within her winds up to scathing proportions.

“She is an animal. Servile as a dog. And yet if he is careful to make no demands, to leave the air between them open, another version of the windup girl emerges. As precious and rare as a living bo tree. Her soul, emerging from within the strangling strands of her engineered DNA.” – Paolo Baciaglupi, The Windup Girl 

Until everything comes to a head, and all chaos breaks loose.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is three-fourths build-up, and one-fourth explosion. I admit, I got bored somewhere in the middle. But it is all worth it in the end. Everything just falls into place. It is the kind of story I want to read again immediately after the first time because I feel like I can appreciate it much better the second time around.

Coffee Bean and Tea Reads Rating:

4 out of 5 Beans

4 Beans

Star Wars: Lost Stars by Claudia Gray – Book Review

Title: Star Wars: Lost Stars
Author: Claudia Gray
Release Date: September 4th 2015
Publisher: Disney Lucasfilm Press
Series: Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Lost Stars is a wonderfully written Star Wars novel. It features a captivating love story, whose star-crossed lovers I now adore as much as the classic characters from the movies and television series. In fact, I am eagerly looking forward to having Thane Kyrell and Ciena Ree featured in The Force Awakens.

Thane and Ciena grew up on the planet. Thane belonged to an affluent family, Ciena in an impoverished one. But they became friends because of their mutual love of spaceships, and dream to become elite pilots of the Empire. They also had undeniable chemistry, and their love story felt very natural and believable. Despite soon  finding themselves on opposite sides of the war—Thane joining the rebels and Ciena moving up the ranks of the Empire—I found myself rooting for both characters.

“Believing in something greater than ourselves isn’t crazy. It’s proof we’re sane. Look how vast the galaxy is. Don’t you have to admit we can’t be the greatest power within it?” – Claudia Gray, Lost Stars

The love story of Ciena and Thane is great on its own, but there’s so much more to love about Claudia Gray’s novel. Lost Stars gave me a glimpse of what happens in the periphery of what I am used to seeing on television and in the movies. This novel puts a spotlight on the nameless soldiers and pilots who fight for the Empire. They are real people—many of them sincere, admirable, likable.

I enjoyed learning about how the Empire recruits and trains its pilots. How the pilots flying tie fighters are more than just cannon fodder for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and the other rebel pilots. It takes massive hard work, skill, and intelligence to become an elite pilot of the Empire. It also takes unquestioning and absolute loyalty to the Empire as well, and it is this questioning of the Empire’s unabated cruelty that convinces Thane to join the rebels.

“We killed billions of people. We slaughtered billions, and afterward we were expected to applaud.” – Claudia Gray, Lost Stars

I got a closer look at life in the Death Star, where millions of people worked and lived. This made me see the Death Star’s destruction in a new light. When Luke destroyed the first Death Star, he didn’t just blow up a ship that obliterates planets, he also obliterated a whole planet that was the Death Star. He killed millions of people, most of them nowhere near as diabolical as The Emperor.

I could go on and on about why I love Lost Stars so much, but I think I’ll stop right here. Now, I think I’ll search for a Claudia Gray novel to read.

Coffee Bean and Tea Reads Rating:

5 Beans

5 beans out of 5

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer – Book Review

Title: Annihilation
Author: Jeff Vandermeer
Cover Artist: Abby Kagan
Release Date: February 4th 2014
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG) Originals
Series: Southern Reach # 1

Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, as told through the lens of a female biologist protagonist, is one of the most beautifully nightmarish books I’ve ever read.

The devil is in the details in book one of the Southern Reach Trilogy, and what better way to discover the flora and fauna of a mysterious land than from the observations of an expert in this field of study. At first, things go more or less according to plan. The biologist spends most of her time jotting down notes in her journal and collecting biological specimens for study.

“I leaned in closer, like a fool, like someone who had not had months of survival training or ever studied biology. Someone tricked into thinking that words should be read.” – Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation

When the protagonist herself begins to doubt her understanding of Area X: of the monstrous groaning every dusk; of the creature slithering through the reeds at night; of the mysterious tower burrowing inexplicably underground, of the living words on the wall formed by some unknown moss or fungus, her building terror is palpable.

Adding paranoia to what the video above describes as a “the more they learn, the less they really know” situation is the biologist’s distrusting her companions. She believes someone in the group is hiding the truth, and this deception may have dangerous, even fatal consequences for the group. Unfortunately, she isn’t as paranoid as she thinks. Some truths, more half-truths, and even more questions with no answers—a barrage of inexplicable phenomena begins overwhelming her.

“The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.” – Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation

By the second half of the novel, the biologist’s narrative turns so bizarre and otherworldly. I felt like I was immersing myself in her living nightmare, and could feel her losing grip on reality. There were whole sections of text where I had absolutely no idea what was happening anymore, even after several rereads. I didn’t know whether to stop and try making sense of things, or just move on and finish the novel. Unfortunately, the biologist had no time to stop and reflect on her situation.

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer has readers divided. Some readers praise the novel for immersing them in this nightmarish, detached, psychological reading experience, while others dismiss it for being deceptively deceiving and alienating gobbledygook.

“Nothing that lived and breathed was truly objective—even in a vacuum, even if all that possessed the brain was a self-immolating desire for the truth.” – Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation

I agree with the first group of readers and look forward to reading the whole Southern Reach Trilogy. But readers who belong to the second group might want to avoid the second and third novels as they are much thicker and presumably even weirder than the first. Cheers to the new weird in science fiction!

Coffee Bean and Tea Reads Rating:

5 Beans out of 5
5 out of 5 beans

Dune by Frank Herbert – Book Review

Title: Dune
Author: Frank Herbert
Release Year: June 1, 2006 (first published in 1965)
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Series: Dune Chronicles # 1

When I first watched the three-part Frank Herbert’s Dune (2010) miniseries on television, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. The miniseries is different from the 1984 full-length film directed by David Lynch. The video posted above is an extended introduction to the 1984 film, as narrated by Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen). I’m not sure if I watched Lynch’s film as well, but I have a feeling scenes from the miniseries and the film are just jumbled up in my head.

Anyway, the sand worms in the live-action adaptations of the novel just blew me away, and I really wanted those blue eyes. There was so much action and adventure. For me, watching Dune was also a significant aha moment when I realized how much I enjoyed science-fiction.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – Frank Herbert, Dune

Reading Dune was a very different yet equally amazing experience. The action was still there, but there was more politics. More schemes, behind schemes, behind other schemes. And betrayal, after betrayal, after betrayal. If found the movie versus book experience very similar to that of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, where the book is filled with depth and lore that was slightly watered down and action-hyped for the movie-going public.

“Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.” – Frank Herbert, Dune

The seeming omniscience of Paul Atredis, especially when he becomes Muad’Dib was something that really bothered me throughout the novel. It’s not that he kind of knows whats about to happen, but it’s vague. It’s also not that he sees branching paths of possibility, but has to choose one of them. It’s that he knows exactly what is going to happen, he doesn’t want it to happen, he knows how it will happen, but he does nothing to prevent it from happening.

“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.” – Frank Herbert, Dune

I mean, what a loser! Why in the world am I reading about your internal struggles, when you don’t plan to anything about it anyway? But I appreciated the tension within him. That he was a human being who had the god-like ability to see the future. That he was a man who possessed powers stronger than any female Bene Gesserit witch in history. That he was bred to fulfill a prophesy against his knowledge and will. His internal struggles alone is a great story in itself.

This novel is a complex mix of many themes: government politics, gender politics, colonialism, myth-making, religion, the nature of power, and the power of nature. It delves into the power of prophets and religious figures, who can inspire followers to do great and seemingly impossible feats.  Paul Atredis as Muad’Dib is clearly the ‘Holy Man’ in Frank Herbert’s novel, and it is this future bloody Jihad he sees himself leading that Paul greatly fears.

“When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movements become headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget the precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s too late.” – Frank Herbert, Dune

I find Dune a massively enriching and gratifying sci-fi novel, and I think it’s a must-read for anyone interested in reading the best of science fiction literature, then and now.

Coffee Bean and Tea Reads Rating:

 

5 Beans out of 5
5 Beans out of 5