“Venom” is better than it has any right to be

What happens when a cast of Oscar contenders like Tom Hardy, Riz Ahmed and Michelle Williams are turned loose to chew the scenery of a (seemingly wryly self-aware) B movie? Audiences get “Venom”, the latest bid from Sony Pictures to create its own superhero mega-franchise now that storylines for the studio’s web-slinging centerpiece have merged […]

What happens when a cast of Oscar contenders like Tom Hardy, Riz Ahmed and Michelle Williams are turned loose to chew the scenery of a (seemingly wryly self-aware) B movie?

Audiences get “Venom”, the latest bid from Sony Pictures to create its own superhero mega-franchise now that storylines for the studio’s web-slinging centerpiece have merged into the cast of thousands populating Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Audiences may remember the character Venom as the nemesis in “Spider-Man 3”, the last (and least) of the original Spider-Man movies directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire.

There are echoes of its cinematic predecessor in the current “Venom”, but instead of setting up the character of Eddie Brock, and his alter-ego, Venom, as a nemesis to Peter Parker and Spider-Man, the new reboot focuses solely on Brock.

A “loose cannon” in the reporting world, Brock’s bona fides as a righter of wrongs are established early in a montage sequence that has him reporting on the seedy underbelly of a stylized San Francisco, ruled by technology companies that have run more than slightly amok over the city’s population.

Brock’s nemesis, played by the Emmy award-winning British actor Riz Ahmed, is “Carlton Drake” a billionaire tech mogul whose wealth is built on the backs of the city’s poor. They serve as fodder for Drake’s experiments, meant to save humanity from destruction at the hands of disease, climate change, and overpopulation. And they’re the focal point of Brock’s reporting.

Drake’s plans to save the world have a whiff of Elon Musk, as he fantasizes about extraterrestrial colonization, sending space ships up to explore other planets that may be suitable for human life — or asteroids that may be suitable for mining.

In these heady times where startups like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Planetary Resources are planning colonization and asteroid mining missions, the plot point isn’t as far-fetched as some might think. But the alien life-form known as a symbiote, which Drake’s crew of astronauts takes back for study and (human) experimentation is still squarely in the realm of comic books.

Those symbiotes are what give the movie its propellant force, as Drake experiments on humans to try and find suitable hosts for the super-powered aliens (who feed on human organs) to bond with — thus creating a new super species that can survive the coming environmental apocalypse and ensuing space colonization.

Brock, while working to uncover the dastardly deeds of this mad scientist, becomes one of those unwitting hosts — and thus imbued with super powers, fights the good fight with the help of his former fiancee, in an unlikely turn for Michelle Williams, to save the earth, and himself.

With Ahmed forced to deliver clunkers like, “Oh my God, they’re beautiful!” when first confronted with the alien species; or “Release the drones!” during a particularly satisfying chase sequence where his minions are tracking an alien-infected Brock (made the more enjoyable for the wanton destruction of San Francisco), “Venom” could have been terrible.

But the movie aims for the kind of tongue-in-cheek humor that made Deadpool a hit with audiences … and it mostly succeeds. Hardy delivers a performance that’s shot through with some great physical comedy and sight gags, and the levity goes a long way to lightening what could have been an exercise in morbidity given the darkness of an alien-infected, organ eating anti-hero at the movie’s core. 

To be clear, Venom doesn’t quite hit the meta-movie high notes that made Deadpool a smash, but powered by the performances from Williams and Hardy (who seem to have chemistry) and a script that aims for humor and hijinks and (seemingly) embraces the camp within its source material, Sony should have a solid foundation on which to build a new superhero franchise.

And it needs one. As Spider-Man’s scripting swings off into the arms of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony appears to be looking to some of the lesser-known corners and characters in the Spideyverse so it can write its own destiny. Next up for the studio is Morbius: the Living Vampire, which has landed Jared Leto in the lead role, according to recent reports.

Following on the heels of Disney’s surprise breakout hit with “Guardians of the Galaxy” and Fox’s big box office bonanza with “Deadpool” (both lesser known titles in the Marvel catalog), the practice of going with something a bit more off-the-beaten path when it comes to superhero sagas may not be a bad idea.

Perhaps Venom benefited from the extremely low expectations that had been set for it, but the movie managed to score big with the preview audience that attended last night’s premier.

With moon mining, space tourism and colonization on the horizon, Star Trek is only years away

“Where we are at the beginning of this century is where Star Trek begins,” says Alan Stern, the NASA researcher who was one of the architects of the New Horizons mission to Pluto.  In an age where science fiction is rapidly becoming a simple fact, Stern says moon mining, extra-terrestrial energy generation and space tourism […]

“Where we are at the beginning of this century is where Star Trek begins,” says Alan Stern, the NASA researcher who was one of the architects of the New Horizons mission to Pluto

In an age where science fiction is rapidly becoming a simple fact, Stern says moon mining, extra-terrestrial energy generation and space tourism are just around the corner. As the colonization of space progresses, Stern says that moon mining will be one of the first applications of our burgeoning commercial space industry.

“Platinum is abundant on the moon and other rare earths that we have to strip mine on Earth,” Stern said on the Next Stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF. “It’s lying there waiting for us on the moon. It’s a tremendous opportunity to quit mining the Earth and instead take advantage of the tremendous resources that the solar system presents us.”

Mining may be one of the early commercial applications of the new space industry, but it’s certainly not the only one.

“We need to think of the next decade of space as the Roaring ’20s,” says Stern. “Access to space for humans is still rare, but that’s going to change.”

The NASA scientist himself has already bought three tickets on Virgin Galactic to enjoy the marvels of space for the first time.

Indeed, space tourism has been a thing in the space industry for a while — albeit one that was haltingly adopted by the masses. It started in the 1990s when Helen Sharman was flown to the Russian space station. But Stern predicts that next year will launch the industry in earnest.

“Beginning next year we should see companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic start flying sub-orbital flights,” Stern says. “I hope to see sub-orbital tourism flying at least once a day by the early 2020s.”

And with new startups reducing the costs of space travel, the pace of launches for the space industry should increase exponentially, Stern says. “I want to see not a launch a week, not a launch a day, but a launch an hour. We ought to be able to use space to reduce travel times to 45 minutes anywhere in the world.”

Companies like Relativity Space, Vector and others are developing new launch technologies that could compete with the established giants like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and the leading space launch company of the moment, SpaceX.

NASA puts $44 million toward cryogenics and mid-air spacecraft retrieval

NASA has announced a set of public-private partnerships with several U.S. space companies, totaling an impressive $44 million. Blue Origin, Astrobotic Technology, United Launch Alliance and more are the recipients of up to $10 million each for a variety of projects aimed at exploring and utilizing space safely and efficiently. The 10 awards are for “tipping […]

NASA has announced a set of public-private partnerships with several U.S. space companies, totaling an impressive $44 million. Blue Origin, Astrobotic Technology, United Launch Alliance and more are the recipients of up to $10 million each for a variety of projects aimed at exploring and utilizing space safely and efficiently.

The 10 awards are for “tipping point” technologies, as NASA calls them, that are highly promising but need funding for a ground or flight demonstration — in other words, to get it out of the lab.

ULA is the big winner here, taking home $13.9 million split between three projects — $10 million will go to looking into a cryogenic vehicle fluid management system that could simplify and improve lunar landers. The rest of the money is split between another cryogenic fluid project for missions with long durations, and a project to “demonstrate mid-air retrieval capabilities up to 8,000 pounds… on a vehicle returning to Earth from orbital velocity.” Really, that last one is the cheapest?

Blue Origin has $13 million coming its way, primarily for… yet another cryogenic fluid management system for lunar landers. You can see where NASA’s priorities are — putting boots on the regolith. The remainder goes to testing a suite of advanced sensors that could make lunar landings easier. The company will be testing both these systems on its New Shepard vehicle from as high as 100km.

The other big $10 million prize goes to Astrobotic Technology, which will, like Blue Origin, be working on a sensor suite for Terrain Relative Navigation. It’s basically adding intelligence to a craft’s landing apparatus so it can autonomously change its touchdown location, implement safety measures and so on, based on the actual local observed conditions.

The Mars 2020 Rover will be using its own TRN system, and the ones funded here will be different and presumably more advanced, but this gif from NASA does a good job illustrating the tech:

Several other endeavors were selected by NASA for funding, and you can find them — and more technical details for the ones mentioned above — at the partnership announcement page.