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tons of ideas for little builders – TechCrunch

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The holiday season is here again, touting all sorts of kids’ toys that pledge to pack ‘STEM smarts’ in the box, not just the usual battery-based fun.

Educational playthings are nothing new, of course. But, in recent years, long time toymakers and a flurry of new market entrants have piggybacked on the popularity of smartphones and apps, building connected toys for even very young kids that seek to tap into a wider ‘learn to code’ movement which itself feeds off worries about the future employability of those lacking techie skills.

Whether the lofty educational claims being made for some of these STEM gizmos stands the test of time remains to be seen. Much of this sums to clever branding. Though there’s no doubt a lot of care and attention has gone into building this category out, you’ll also find equally eye-catching price-tags.

Whatever STEM toy you buy there’s a high chance it won’t survive the fickle attention spans of kids at rest and play. (Even as your children’s appetite to be schooled while having fun might dash your ‘engineer in training’ expectations.) Tearing impressionable eyeballs away from YouTube or mobile games might be your main parental challenge — and whether kids really need to start ‘learning to code’ aged just 4 or 5 seems questionable.

Buyers with high ‘outcome’ hopes for STEM toys should certainly go in with their eyes, rather than their wallets, wide open. The ‘STEM premium’ can be steep indeed, even as the capabilities and educational potential of the playthings themselves varies considerably.

At the cheaper end of the price spectrum, a ‘developmental toy’ might not really be so very different from a more basic or traditional building block type toy used in concert with a kid’s own imagination, for example.

While, at the premium end, there are a few devices in the market that are essentially fully fledged computers — but with a child-friendly layer applied to hand-hold and gamify STEM learning. An alternative investment in your child’s future might be to commit to advancing their learning opportunities yourself, using whatever computing devices you already have at home. (There are plenty of standalone apps offering guided coding lessons, for example. And tons and tons of open source resources.)

For a little DIY STEM learning inspiration read this wonderful childhood memoir by TechCrunch’s very own John Biggs — a self-confessed STEM toy sceptic.

It’s also worth noting that some startups in this still youthful category have already pivoted more toward selling wares direct to schools — aiming to plug learning gadgets into formal curricula, rather than risking the toys falling out of favor at home. Which does lend weight to the idea that standalone ‘play to learn’ toys don’t necessarily live up to the hype. And are getting tossed under the sofa after a few days’ use.

We certainly don’t suggest there are any shortcuts to turn kids into coders in the gift ideas presented here. It’s through proper guidance — plus the power of their imagination — that the vast majority of children learn. And of course kids are individuals, with their own ideas about what they want to do and become.

The increasingly commercialized rush towards STEM toys, with hundreds of millions of investor dollars being poured into the category, might also be a cause for parental caution. There’s a risk of barriers being thrown up to more freeform learning — if companies start pushing harder to hold onto kids’ attention in a more and more competitive market. Barriers that could end up dampening creative thinking.

At the same time (adult) consumers are becoming concerned about how much time they spend online and on screens. So pushing kids to get plugged in from a very early age might not feel like the right thing to do. Your parental priorities might be more focused on making sure they develop into well rounded human beings — by playing with other kids and/or non-digital toys that help them get to know and understand the world around them, and encourage using more of their own imagination.

But for those fixed on buying into the STEM toy craze this holiday season, we’ve compiled a list of some of the main players, presented in alphabetical order, rounding up a selection of what they’re offering for 2018, hitting a variety of price-points, product types and age ranges, to present a market overview — and with the hope that a well chosen gift might at least spark a few bright ideas…


Adafruit Kits

Product: Metro 328 Starter Pack 
Price: $45
Description: Not a typical STEM toy but a starter kit from maker-focused and electronics hobbyist brand Adafruit. The kit is intended to get the user learning about electronics and Arduino microcontrollers to set them on a path to being a maker. Adafruit says the kit is designed for “everyone, even people with little or no electronics and programming experience”. Though parental supervision is a must unless you’re buying for a teenager or mature older child. Computer access is also required for programming the Arduino.

Be sure to check out Adafruit’s Young Engineers Category for a wider range of hardware hacking gift ideas too, from $10 for a Bare Conductive Paint Pen, to $25 for the Drawdio fun pack, to $35 for this Konstruktor DIY Film Camera Kit or $75 for the Snap Circuits Green kit — where budding makers can learn about renewable energy sources by building a range of solar and kinetic energy powered projects. Adafruit also sells a selection of STEM focused children’s books too, such as Python for Kids ($35)
Age: Teenagers, or younger children with parental supervision


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Anki

Product: Cozmo
Price: $180
Description: The animation loving Anki team added a learn-to-code layer to their cute, desktop-mapping bot last year — called Cozmo Code Lab, which was delivered via free update — so the cartoonesque, programmable truck is not new on the scene for 2018 but has been gaining fresh powers over the years.

This year the company has turned its attention to adults, launching a new but almost identical-looking assistant-style bot, called Vector, that’s not really aimed at kids. That more pricey ($250) robot is slated to be getting access to its code lab in future, so it should have some DIY programming potential too.
Age: 8+


Dash Robotics

Product: Kamigami Jurassic World Robot
Price: ~$60
Description: Hobbyist robotics startup Dash Robotics has been collaborating with toymaker Mattel on the Kamigami line of biologically inspired robots for over a year now. The USB-charged bots arrive at kids’ homes in build-it-yourself form before coming to programmable, biomimetic life via the use of a simple, icon-based coding interface in the companion app.

The latest addition to the range is dinosaur bot series Jurassic World, currently comprised of a pair of pretty similar looking raptor dinosaurs, each with light up eyes and appropriate sound effects. Using the app kids can complete challenges to unlock new abilities and sounds. And if you have more than one dinosaur in the same house they can react to each other to make things even more lively.
Age: 8+


Kano

Product: Harry Potter Coding Kit
Price: $100
Description: British learn-to-code startup Kano has expanded its line this year with a co-branded, build-it-yourself wand linked to the fictional Harry Potter wizard series. The motion-sensitive e-product features a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer and Bluetooth wireless so kids can use it to interact with coding content on-screen. The company offers 70-plus challenges for children to play wizard with, using wand gestures to manipulate digital content. Like many STEM toys it requires a tablet or desktop computer to work its digital magic (iOS and Android tablets are supported, as well as desktop PCs including Kano’s Computer Kit Touch, below)
Age: 6+

Product: Computer Kit Touch
Price: $280
Description: The latest version of Kano’s build-it-yourself Pi-powered kids’ computer. This year’s computer kit includes the familiar bright orange physical keyboard but now paired with a touchscreen. Kano reckons touch is a natural aid to the drag-and-drop, block-based learn-to-code systems it’s putting under kids’ fingertips here. Although its KanoOS Pi skin does support text-based coding too, and can run a wide range of other apps and programs — making this STEM device a fully fledged computer in its own right
Age: 6-13


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Lego

Product: Boost Creative Toolbox
Price: $160
Description: Boost is Lego’s relatively recent foray into offering a simpler robotics and programming system aimed at younger kids vs its more sophisticated and expensive veteran Mindstorms creator platform (for 10+ year olds). The Boost Creative Toolbox is an entry point to Lego + robotics, letting kids build a range of different brick-based bots — all of which can be controlled and programmed via the companion app which offers an icon-based coding system.

Boost components can also be combined with other Lego kits to bring other not-electronic kits to life — such as its Stormbringer Ninjago Dragon kit (sold separately for $40). Ninjago + Boost means = a dragon that can walk and turn its head as if it’s about to breathe fire
Age: 7-12


littleBits

Product: Avengers Hero Inventor Kit
Price: $150
Description: This Disney co-branded wearable in kit form from the hardware hackers over at littleBits lets superhero-inspired kids snap together all sorts of electronic and plastic bits to make their own gauntlet from the Avengers movie franchise. The gizmo features an LED matrix panel, based on Tony Stark’s palm Repulsor Beam, they can control via companion app. There are 18 in-app activities for them to explore, assuming kids don’t just use amuse themselves acting out their Marvel superhero fantasies
Age: 8+

It’s worth noting that littleBits has lots more to offer — so if bringing yet more Disney-branded merch into your home really isn’t your thing, check out its wide range of DIY electronics kits, which cater to various price points, such as this Crawly Creature Kit ($40) or an Electronic Music Inventor Kit ($100), and much more… No major movie franchises necessary


Makeblock

Product: Codey Rocky
Price: $100
Description: Shenzhen-based STEM kit maker Makeblock crowdfunded this emotive, programmable bot geared towards younger kids on Kickstarter. There’s no assembly required, though the bot itself can transform into a wearable or handheld device for game playing, as Codey (the head) detaches from Rocky (the wheeled body).

Despite the young target age, the toy is packed with sophisticated tech — making use of deep learning algorithms, for example. While the company’s visual programming system, mBlock, also supports Python text coding, and allows kids to code bot movements and visual effects on the display, tapping into the 10 programmable modules on this sensor-heavy bot. Makeblock says kids can program Codey to create dot matrix animations, design games and even build AI and IoT applications, thanks to baked in support for voice, image and even face recognition… The bot has also been designed to be compatible with Lego bricks so kids can design and build physical add-ons too
Age: 6+

Product: Airblock
Price: $100
Description: Another programmable gizmo from Makeblock’s range. Airblock is a modular and programmable drone/hovercraft so this is a STEM device that can fly. Magnetic connectors are used for easy assembly of the soft foam pieces. Several different assembly configurations are possible. The companion app’s block-based coding interface is used for programming and controlling your Airblock creations
Age: 8+


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Ozobot

Product: Evo
Price: $100
Description: This programmable robot has a twist as it can be controlled without a child always having to be stuck to a screen. The Evo’s sensing system can detect and respond to marks made by marker pens and stickers in the accompanying Experience Pack — so this is coding via paper plus visual cues.

There is also a digital, block-based coding interface for controlling Evo, called OzoBlockly (based on Google’s Blockly system). This has a five-level coding system to support a range of ages, from pre-readers (using just icon-based blocks), up to a ‘Master mode’ which Ozobot says includes extensive low-level control and advanced programming features
Age: 9+


Pi-top


Product: Modular Laptop
Price: $320 (with a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+), $285 without
Description: This snazzy 14-inch modular laptop, powered by Raspberry Pi, has a special focus on teaching coding and electronics. Slide the laptop’s keyboard forward and it reveals a built in rail for hardware hacking. Guided projects designed for kids include building a music maker and a smart robot. The laptop runs pi-top’s learn-to-code oriented OS — which supports block-based coding programs like Scratch and kid-friendly wares like Minecraft Pi edition, as well as its homebrew CEEDUniverse: A Civilization style game that bakes in visual programming puzzles to teach basic coding concepts. The pi-top also comes with a full software suite of more standard computing apps (including apps from Google and Microsoft). So this is no simple toy. Not a new model for this year — but still a compelling STEM machine
Age: 8+


Robo Wunderkind


Product: Starter Kit
Price: $200 
Description: Programmable robotics blocks for even very young inventors. The blocks snap together and are color-coded based on function so as to minimize instruction for the target age group. Kids can program their creations to do stuff like drive, play music, detect obstacles and more via a drag-and-drop coding interface in the companion Robo Code app. Another app — Robo Live — lets them control what they’ve built in real time. The physical blocks can also support Lego-based add-ons for more imaginative designs
Age: 5+


Root Robotics

Product: Root
Price: $200
Description: A robot that can sense and draw, thanks to a variety of on board sensors, battery-powered kinetic energy and its central feature: A built-in pen holder. Root uses spirographs as the medium for teaching STEM as kids get to code what the bot draws. They can also create musical compositions with a scan and play mode that turns Root into a music maker. The companion app offers three levels of coding interfaces to support different learning abilities and ages. At the top end it supports programming in Swift (with Python and JavaScript slated as coming soon). An optional subscription service offers access to additional learning materials and projects to expand Root’s educational value
Age: 4+


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Sphero


Product: Bolt
Price: $150
Description: The app-enabled robot ball maker’s latest STEM gizmo. It’s still a transparent sphere but now has an 8×8 LED matrix lodged inside to expand the programmable elements. This colorful matrix can be programmed to display words, show data in real-time and offer game design opportunities. Bolt also includes an ambient light sensor, and speed and direction sensors, giving it an additional power up over earlier models. The Sphero Edu companion app supports drawing, Scratch-style block-based and JavaScript text programming options to suit different ages
Age: 8+


Tech Will Save Us

Product: Range of coding, electronics and craft kits
Price: From ~$30 up to $150
Description: A delightful range of electronic toys and coding kits, hitting various age and price-points, and often making use of traditional craft materials (which of course kids love). Examples include a solar powered moisture sensor kit ($40) to alert when a pot plant needs water; electronic dough ($35); a micro:bot add-on kit ($35) that makes use of the BBC micro:bit device (sold separately); and the creative coder kit ($70), which pairs block-based coding with a wearable that lets kids see their code in action (and reacting to their actions)
Age: 4+, 8+, 11+ depending on kit


UBTech Robotics

Product: JIMU Robot BuilderBots Series: Overdrive Kit
Price: $120
Description: More snap-together, codable robot trucks that kids get to build and control. These can be programmed either via posing and recording, or using Ubtech’s drag-and-drop, block-based Blockly coding program. The Shenzhen-based company, which has been in the STEM game for several years, offers a range of other kits in the same Jimu kit series — such as this similarly priced UnicornBot and its classic MeeBot Kit, which can be expanded via the newer Animal Add-on Kit
Age: 8+


Wonder Workshop

Product: Dot Creativity Kit 
Price: $80
Description: San Francisco-based Wonder Workshop offers a kid-friendly blend of controllable robotics and DIY craft-style projects in this entry-level Dot Creativity Kit. Younger kids can play around and personalize the talkative connected device. But the startup sells a trio of chatty robots all aimed at encouraging children to get into coding. Next in line there’s Dash ($150), also for 6+ year olds. Then Cue ($200) for 11+. The startup also has a growing range of accessories to expand the bots’ (programmable) functionality — such as this Sketch Kit ($40) which adds a few arty smarts to Dash or Cue.

With Dot, younger kids play around using a suite of creative apps to control and customize their robot and tap more deeply into its capabilities, with the apps supporting a range of projects and puzzles designed to both entertain them and introduce basic coding concepts
Age: 6+


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Dread Pirate Roberts escaped development hell: Making Silk Road work as a film

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Trailer for Silk Road.

In the last decade or so of Ars, two pre-COVID news stories stand out to me as the “biggest”—the kind of stuff that captivates a general audience in the moment and will attract the eyes of Hollywood eventually. The first one happened back in 2013, when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified documents that showed the US had a secret surveillance program up and running that even monitored US citizens. To make the saga even juicier, Snowden ultimately had to flee the country for fear of legal retribution.

The second story largely unfolded in that same year. A young libertarian named Ross Ulbricht pondered why in the United States you couldn’t purchase drugs freely and openly on the Internet through some kind of one-stop repository like Amazon. Eventually, his Silk Road website sprung up and captivated the world… until federal authorities finally closed in on Ulbricht in a San Francisco library in October 2013. The arrest led to an eye-opening trial and a life sentence for the pseudonymous Dread Pirate Roberts.

Snowden’s story ultimately got the Hollywood treatment, via the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour in 2014 and a fictionalized account starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt two years later. And though it took a bit longer (unless we’re counting a made-for-TV documentary), the Silk Road odyssey has finally made its feature film debut, too.

After years of rumors and vetted projects, Silk Road had a February VOD run and arrived on Hulu this month. Previous attempts to get a film in the can included industry royalty as big as the Coen brothers (that one would have been based on coverage by our Condé brethren Wired.). But time and again, these initiatives sputtered out during some stage of “development hell”—scripts that weren’t quite right, issues with casting and budget, etc. What actually got the job done was paring down rather than expanding the scope of this complex crypto crime thriller.

“There’s a long history of attempts to get this movie made—there were many competing projects at one time, I think there were four or five,” says Duncan Montgomery of High Frequency Entertainment, the production company that helped get Silk Road (based on this Rolling Stone piece) done. “[When we were finally brought on], we started giving our opinion directly to everyone: it needs to be a smaller film.

“[Screenwriter/director] Tiller Russell had interesting elements—the cat-and-mouse detective stuff that gets out of the box and has some entertaining aspects. But this was never going to be a $30 to $40 million-budget film,” he told Ars this spring. “So when Imagine Entertainment’s deal with the other producer expired, we stepped in and got the rights. And I think Imagine was OK with that, because by then they understood it wasn’t going to be a fit for the kind and size of films they like to make.”

How to make a Silk Road film, step one: narrow it

Anyone who followed even a tiny amount of the Silk Road news coverage can probably close their eyes and imagine how a studio might see this as a globetrotting blockbuster. It’s the Stefon of source material: the Silk Road had everything. Worldwide reach with major happenings in San Francisco, Austin, and DC. Bleeding-edge technology leveraged for lucrative crime. Drugs galore. An alleged murder-for-hire scheme. Dirty cops capable of major schemes and good cops capable of intricate investigation. And at the center of it all stood a stubbornly ideological kingpin who ultimately turned out to be more bluster and brains than brawn.

All that drama happens long before you even get to the tense arrest attempts and courtroom fireworks. But taking this huge story and translating it into a film that could be successful at the (before times) box office while keeping a normal runtime isn’t simple. Montgomery says the team started by identifying then tackling two core challenges: the scope and the screens.

“To this day, there’s so much we had to leave out. Really, what this needs is a six-hour limited series,” he tells Ars. “So that was really hard, and it had to find a balance. Do we just tell Ross’ story? Do we even have enough time? Then we ultimately had a DEA agent who’s really an amalgamation of real people. We didn’t feel comfortable from a legal standpoint telling Carl Force’s story or using another guy, so we made a combination of several.”

To maintain this narrow focus, Silk Road unfolds in parallel storylines. On one side, the film follows Ulbricht, played by Nick Robinson (Jurassic World). Montgomery has lived in Austin, Texas, since the ’90s, and he remembers having friends that put him a degree of separation away from a young Ulbricht. But despite how captivating the team found Ulbricht’s backstory while working through the research, the film ultimately skips the Silk Road founder’s upbringing and college years, and it halts before the courtroom drama.

What’s covered, however, is extremely loyal to reality. Silk Road had Ulbricht’s former girlfriend Julia Vie as a consultant who also optioned her story rights. The film shows Ulbricht problem-solving early marketing and technical hiccups until he increasingly loses his grip on reality. He goes from philosophically driven entrepreneur with a life to man whose site is his sole focus. And as nefarious as some of his choices and motivations ultimately become, Silk Road does sympathize with this character—a stubborn but personable young adult driven to a dangerous obsession that wipes out his humanity.

“On Ross’ side, that portion of the story is very, very accurate,” Montgomery says. “[Vie] lived with him during that time, so she more than anyone else—even more than his family, his friends—knew. We don’t always tell our parents everything. But it’s much harder to hide it from her, so he was very open with her story… The FBI had interviewed Vie and decided she was not a suspect, so she felt very free to talk with us. They had a relationship we could explore, and we could share their intimacy.”

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Review: Old is a mostly solid film undermined by jarring twist ending

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A family on a tropical holiday discover that the secluded beach where they are relaxing for a few hours is somehow causing them to age rapidly in Old, a new thriller from M. Night Shyamalan.

Director M. Night Shyamalan has a well-known fondness for his signature surprise twist endings. When those twists work organically, we get classics like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. When they don”t—well, if you’re lucky, you get something like his new film, Old, in which everything that comes before is sufficiently compelling that you can almost shake off a jarring final twist that feels so forced, it’s almost like it belongs in an entirely different movie.

(This being an M. Night Shyamalan film where surprise twists are tantamount, I have taken great pains to avoid spoilers. There is nothing discussed in the review below that has not already been revealed in the film’s trailers.)

Old is based on a French graphic novel called Sandcastle, written by Pierre Oscar Levy (also a documentary filmmaker) and illustrated by Frederik Peeters. It’s about a group of 13 people who find themselves trapped on a mysterious, secluded beach where time moves much more quickly—so quickly that young children reach puberty in a matter of hours, and everyone will reach old age and die within 24 hours. Shyamalan received a copy of the book as a Father’s Day gift, and was immediately touched by how it humanely grappled with the all-too-human fear of aging and the relentless passage of time.

Shyamalan’s film is not a direct adaption of the graphic novel, although it keeps the same central premise and several key scenes. It’s more of a re-imagining, with the director fleshing out the narrative and amping up the tension to create an existential thriller that feels more like a “two-hour Twilight Zone episode,” per Shyamalan. Married couple Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal, Mozart in the Jungle) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps, The Phantom Thread) Cappa decide to take a family vacation at a luxurious tropical resort with their two children: daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton), age 11, and son Trent (Nolan River), age six.

The resort manager (Gustaf Hammarsten) arranges a special excursion for the family: a day at a secret, secluded beach. They are not the only chosen ones. There is also a hip-hop artist named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre, Krypton); another married couple, nurse Jarin (Ken Leung, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and psychologist Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Jupiter Ascending); and a cardiothoracic surgeon, Charles (Rufus Sewell, Man in the High Castle), his trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee, Lovecraft Country), his mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant, The Affair), and their six-year-old daughter, Kara (Kylie Begley).

Nothing seems amiss at first, despite the lack of cell phone service, although the children do discover a stash of other people’s personal belongings half-buried under the sand. Then the corpse of a young woman washes up on the beach, and things take a turn for the creepy. Anyone who tries to leave the beach inevitably blacks out. The corpse decomposes in record time, and the children age several years over the course of a few hours. The beach essentially reduces 50 years of life into a single day, making their collective escape a matter of survival.

This is a fantastic concept, and one can see why it appealed to Shyamalan, who uses the premise to explore how the very different personalities trapped on the beach respond to their predicament. Visually, Old is a gorgeous film, almost entirely shot at Playa El Valle in the Dominican Republic. Shyamalan said his angular cinematographic approach was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Rashomon, in order to create an increasingly claustrophobic feel to what starts out as an idyllic beach setting. Composer Trevor Gureckis’ score reinforces the sense of foreboding with strings playing detuned harmonies, and tribal bass drums evoking the relentless forward march of time.

There are some truly lovely moments in Old, especially with the Cappa family. Guy and Prisca must confront the issues in their marriage, and struggle with watching their kids grow up way too fast—something Shyamalan, father to now-grown daughters, understands very well. Both Bernal and Krieps give exquisitely subtle performances, while Thomasina McKenzie (JoJo Rabbit) and Alex Wolff (Hereditary) are equally effective as the teenaged Maddox and Trent, respectively

Unfortunately, the other characters aren’t nearly as fully developed, although the talented cast does its best to bring depth to underwritten roles that amount to little more than stereotypes. This is especially disappointing in the case of Chrystal, the trophy wife, whose entire sense of self-worth rests on her youth and physical beauty. Ours is a culture that treats aging women particularly harshly, and there could have been a fascinating character arc for Chrystal where she genuinely grappled with what sudden, rapid aging means for her sense of self. Instead, she becomes increasingly monstrous, which is far less interesting.

The biggest issue with the film is that Shyamalan just can’t resist trying to be clever, thereby undermining the reflective, almost elegiac notes he achieves in the final act. All I will say about that twist ending is that it feels tacked on as an afterthought, and is utterly inconsistent in tone with everything that comes before. Some things are best left unexplained. (The graphic novel that inspired Shyamalan, for instance, never explains the strange aging anomaly on the beach, and ends with a cryptic scene of a young child building a new sandcastle all alone.)

I came out of the screening with mixed feelings, convinced that Old would prove to be divisive with both critics and audiences, and thus far that seems to be the case. (It’s even languishing a bit at the box office, although that’s probably as much due to spiking COVID cases dissuading folks from going to theaters as anything else.) Shyamalan has made several films hammered by critics at the time of their release, which were later re-assessed more favorably (see The Village). Perhaps Old will also be favorably re-assessed a few years down the road, despite its flaws, since it really does successfully evoke both an existential sense of dread, and an ultimate acceptance of human mortality.

Old is now playing in theaters. We strongly recommend only watching movies in theaters if you have been fully vaccinated.

Listing image by Universal Pictures

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Star Trek: Lower Decks S2 trailer promises more scrappy underdog adventures

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Our favorite ensigns are back with more wacky hijinks in the second season of Star Trek: Lower Decks.

The animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks was one of our favorite TV shows of 2020, so we’ve been looking forward to its second season. We won’t have long to wait. S2 drops next month on Paramount+, and the studio debuted its first trailer during the Star Trek Universe panel at Comic-Con@Home 2021. That same panel also gave us our first teaser for another new animated series, Star Trek: Prodigy.

(Spoilers for S1 of Star Trek: Lower Decks below.)

As we’ve reported previously, this is the first animated Star Trek series since the Emmy-award-winning Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS), which ran from 1973 to 1974. Lower Decks is part of a five-year overall deal that Star Trek: Discovery co-creator and showrunner Alex Kurtzman signed with CBS to expand the franchise. Kurtzman tapped Rick and Morty head writer Mike McMahan to spearhead the project. Chronologically, it takes place after the events of the 2002 film Star Trek: Nemesis; the name is an homage to an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). 

The first season, which premiered last August, introduced us to the support crew serving on one of Starfleet’s least important ships, the USS Cerritos, in 2380: Ensigns Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome), Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid), Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), and D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells). Mariner adopts a lax approach to following the rules, which contrasts sharply with the attitude of Boimler, who is a stickler for the rules and dreams of being captain of his own starship one day. Rutherford sports a cyborg implant and bears some resemblance to Geordi La Forge from TNG, while Tendi is an eager-to-please new addition to the medical bay. As Mariner says, “We’re not really elite. We’re more the cool, scrappy underdogs.”

Their madcap S1 adventures included the crew dealing with an alien viral outbreak that turns crew members into raging zombies; Boimler getting slimed by an alien farm animal; Tendi creating a pet dog despite her limited knowledge of canine anatomy; and Mariner getting drunk with a Klingon general who proceeds to steal the shuttlecraft.

Who could forget Boimler’s briefly homicidal holographic assistant Badgey? And we could all benefit from “The Boimler effect,” a mandate that encourages scheduling in “buffer time” so crew members can complete tasks at their own leisurely pace. We also got guest appearances by Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), and everyone’s favorite extra-dimensional being, Q (John de Lancie).

In her review for Ars Technica, Kate Cox described the series as “comfort food with a comic twist.” It included sufficient winks and nods for hardcore Trekkies without veering too far into over-indulgence. “In a universe of lofty goals and monologued moral exhortations, Lower Decks primarily begs us to check ourselves before (and after) we wreck ourselves and to take the opportunities to screw around, have fun, and enjoy the absurdities of space when they are presented,” she concluded.

So what can we expect from S2’s ten episodes? McMahon has said the season will combine standalone episodes with season-long character arcs, including one involving Mariner and Tendi. The season will not undo any of the events of S1, which saw the demise of security chief Lieutenant Shaxs (Fred Tatasciore), who sacrificed himself to save Rutherford. Rutherford will be struggling with some lingering memory issues as a result of those events, and Boimler will now be working on the USS Titan. Meanwhile, Mariner and Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis)—revealed to be her mother last season—will be learning how to work together. We’ll also be seeing more of Riker as captain of the Titan, plus some additional cameos by other characters from past Star Trek series.

Teaser for new animated series Star Trek: Prodigy.

Star Trek: Prodigy will be a very different beast, aimed at a younger audience than the usual Star Trek fare. It’s set in 2383 and takes place after the events of Star Trek: Voyager. In fact, Kate Mulgrew will return to voice Captain Kathryn Janeway—or rather, her appearance as the ship’s Emergency Training Hologram. The show is expected to be different from Lower Decks in both tone and visual style, and this first teaser is certainly in keeping with that idea. Per the official premise:

Star Trek: Prodigy is the first Star Trek series aimed at younger audiences and will follow a motley crew of young aliens who must figure out how to work together while navigating a greater galaxy, in search for a better future. These six young outcasts know nothing about the ship they have commandeered—a first in the history of the Star Trek Franchise—but over the course of their adventures together, they will each be introduced to Starfleet and the ideals it represents.

The main cast features Brett Gray as Dal, a 17-year-old “maverick”; Rylee Alazraqui as Rok-Tahk, an eight-year-old Brikar who loves animals; Angus Imrie as Zero, a non corporeal energy-based Medusan; Jason Mantzoukas as Jankom Pong, a Tellarite who enjoys playing devil’s advocate; Ella Purnell as Gwyn, a Vau N’Akat who grew up on a mining planet; and Dee Bradley Baker as Murf, an “indestructible blob” who likes to chow down on ship parts. In addition, guest star Billy Campbell will be back as rogue freighter captain Thaius Okona from TNG.

Star Trek: Lower Decks S2 will debut on Paramount+ on August 12, 2021, and the show has already been renewed for a third season. Star Trek: Prodigy is expected to land later this year with ten episodes on Paramount+. After that, it will air on Nickelodeon.

Listing image by YouTube/Paramount+

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