Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

John Carter

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Mild Spoiler Warnings:

An airplane is the wrong place to watch John Carter. Or … maybe it’s the right place. You can’t get overwhelmed by special effects watching a tiny screen twenty feet away from you. Story, acting and dialogue become more important; action less. And so while this review is necessarily of a flawed viewing experience, I think I will probably stand by it after I’ve seen Carter on my big TV.

I’m a big fan of Burroughs’ martian tales. Although certain aspects are outdated, they are imaginative, thrilling and captivating. Captain John Carter of Virginia and Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium are two of the great characters in science fiction and Barsoom is one of the most fully realized science fiction worlds ever devised. Barsoom doesn’t just have places, people and monsters. It has culture, history and religion; the things that make a world real. I read the books in college and loved them and I keep meaning to return to Barsoom again. For a long time, I wished John Carter’s cave were real and I could go there. So my expectations were high, if tempered by the cynicism of a 40-year-old.

I can report that while I was disappointed, I was not appalled. The movie is not bad; it is quite watchable. It has some good moments and retains a bit of a sense of wonder. However, I can’t really see myself recommending it to someone other than … me. I have an ability to watch some films and filter out the bad stuff and enjoy the good stuff. This is why I like the Star Wars prequels better than most people in my age group: I enjoy the good parts and ignore the bad ones. I can’t do that with every film, only with films that hit a particular flawed nexus.

But I can’t recommend to anyone else. I think that those unfamiliar with the Burroughs cannon will find themselves a bit lost and bored, not really caring too deeply about it. And I think most of those familiar with the Burroughs cannon will find themselves outraged. This is Borroughs filtered through the action film genre: over-expositioned, filled with too many action scenes, lacking the emotional thread of the books.

I don’t regret watching it. There was stuff that irritated me but enough to like that I’m not regretting the investment of two hours of my time . Granted … it was two hours on a plane; not exactly premium time. But I could find giving those two hours again at some point, maybe as background while I worked.

One big question is how Taylor Kitsch fares in the lead role. Kitsch is actually not bad. He’s not Hayden Christianson out there. But … he’s not that good either. Someone with less looks and more acting chops would have been better. Kitsch’s shortcomings stand out, however, because the rest of the cast is very good. Dominic West does some wonderful scenery chewing (and would have been a better choice in the lead); Willem Dafoe is excellent as Tars Tarkas; James Purefoy has a wonderful two lines as Kantos Kan. But the real gem is Lynn Collins, who simply shines as Dejah Thoris (surprise: I thought she must be English but looked her up and she’s American). She brings intelligence, conviction and beauty to the role, overcoming the writer’s “enhancements” of the character. I actually believed her as the Princess of Mars. Kitsch I could take or leave. But a sequel without Collins would not be worth it.

The biggest problem with the film is that it simply does too much. It’s like the makers decided that A Princess of Mars didn’t have enough material; they had to pull in entire Burroughs mythology and throw in some pointless action scenes. There are simply too many elements, too many working parts. We are not given time to marvel and awe at the beauty and grandeur of Barsoom. We simply stand there while more and more stuff is thrown at us: a stupid and unnecessary expansion of Carter’s adventures out West; an unnecessary addition to his backstory; the river Is; the Therns; some of the deeper politics — these are all things that were not really necessary and, frankly, smack of fanboyism. Lord of the Rings solved the problem of taking a sprawling story and trimming it down, even if it meant losing some of the good parts (Bombadil, the Barrow-Wights, the Scouring of the Shire). John Carter has the opposite problem — taking a lean story and going too deep. This makes for confusion. And the movie tries to cover up its sins with action sequences.

Example: introducing and ramping up the role of the Therns created a good enemy and a clever way to end the movie (and Mark Strong is solid in the role of the chief Thern). But it also was part of the general overwhelming confusion. Holding them back for a future movie; hinting at their existence; that might have worked better. Imagine John Carter returning to Earth, then realizing that someone was using that transportation mechanism and devising a method of smoking them out. That would have ended the movie on an intriguing note and set up the sequel. (That said, the entirely original ending of the movie is one of the best parts and left me smiling).

Really, and I hate to say this, almost all of the movie’s problems would go away if they had just followed the damned book. I don’t say this is a Burroughs purist or any other kind of purist. I haven’t objected to changes made to Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or anything else because I understand that film is a different medium and what works on the page does not necessarily work on the big screen. I get that.

But there’s something the movie makers forgot: Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the books the way he did for a reason. By sticking with Carter’s point of view, the elements of Martian society are introduced more gradually, with new layers of complexity coming with each subsequent book. We are along for the ride, sharing John’s sense of wonder and excitement as he discovers Barsoom. Sticking with that structure would have made for a much more even and far less confusing film.

It also would have taken away the movie’s most glaring problems: the over-reliance on action beats to keep the audience interested; the over-exposition; an arena sequence that is basically ripped straight out of Attack of the Clones. People have a tendency to dismiss Burroughs writing skill since he wrote pulpy stuff. That’s garbage. The man’s books are still read a century after they were written. That’s not because of the cover art. Burroughs could fucking write.

(Aside: I keep referring to action beats. This comes from a Kevin Smith monologue about trying to get a Superman movie made. He recounts a meeting with a Hollywood exec who claimed movies need an action beat every ten minutes to keep the audience interested. If you watch enough movies, you’ll see his philosophy is real. I hate the action beat philosophy and it’s the biggest problem with John Carter. Good films do not need action beats to keep us interested; they build toward action scenes. They don’t rely on them as periodic electroshocks to wake an audience put to sleep by ham-fisted writing.)

In the end, the ultimate test of any movie is “will I buy it on blu-ray?” “Will I spend my hard-earned money so that I can watch this over and over again?” And with John Carter, the answer is, despite my complaints, “probably”. The movie is far from perfect, not even that good. However, it’s not unwatchable and it has its moments. And, frankly, it is likely to be the only John Carter movie worth watching for the next couple of decades.

I will watch it again. I’ll watch it because I’ve been in love with Dejah Thoris for twenty years. I’ll watch it because I like seeing Tars Tarkas on the screen. I’ll watch it because I love Barsoom. And any chance to see it, even a flawed one, is a chance I have to take advantage of.

Your mileage may vary and almost certainly does.

One final note: it an absolute travesty that this film was a flop. It is not bad. It’s quite watchable. It does have a few really good moments. And most of the people I’ve spoken to found it passable. It’s certainly better and more imaginative that the Transformers, Spiderman or Pirates sequels that rake in billions. It flopped because it was badly marketed: the makers thought everyone knew who John Carter was; they didn’t hype it relentlessly — a stunning surprise for Disney; and they put a review embargo on it (always a bad sign). I read several people commenting that they wouldn’t see it because it looked like a cheap Star Wars knockoff.

Disney thought it was going to be a flop, treating it like one and then acted all stunned with their self-fulfilling prophecy fulfilled itself. And their lack of vision cost the film the success that could have set up a sequel: a sequel that could have fixed many of the errors, avoided the mis-steps and given us the John Carter movie we have been waiting a hundred years for.

Oh, well. I’ll just have to cling to my hope that someone will throw a hundred million dollars at Joe Stracyzynski so he can get cracking on the Lensman movies.

IMDB rating: 7/10. But that’s on a fanboy filtering curve. For most people, it would be 6/10. And for many Burroughs fans, it would be lower.

Update: One other note. John Carter’s Earth-evolved physique gives him superior abilities in Mars’ lower gravity, both in the books and the film. But this ability is exaggerated to a big and bothersome degree in the film. That’s another thing that could have been fixed in a sequel.


Thursday, June 7th, 2012

I remember an interview a long time ago with Ray Bradbury. He told a story — and I may be remembering this badly — of seeing a show at a carnival. The showman pointed at him and said, “Live Forever!” He almost did. He died yesterday at 91. And how apropos it happened after a transit of Venus.

There has been a lot said about the man — his amazing combination of optimism and pessimism about the future; his ability to get to our deepest fears and our highest hopes, often at the same time. He could write stories that evoked amazing pathos — my favorite being All Summer in a Day, still one of the most heart-breaking stories I’ve read. He could terrify — I used to have nightmares about Something Wicked This Way Comes. He could infuse us with he wonder of technology and space travel — when I saw Columbia launch on cold morning in Florida, my first thought was, “Rocket Summer”.

But, to me, the one thing that Bradbury was best at was evoking that feeling of youth — of recalling those endless summer days when you could run forever and feel the pure magic of being alive. The sense of child-like wonder in his writings was powerful and often dragged me back in time to when each day was a month and every year a century. He often did this to contrast against what he feared would be a sterile future. A perfect example is from Time in Thy Flight, when a little girl, Janet, is brought from the future to see the “frightening” past. In her words:

“I want to see it all again. I’ve missed the motives somewhere. I want to make that run across town again in the early morning. The cold air on my face — the sidewalk under my feet — the circus train coming in.”

And later, before she jumps the time ship to stay in the past:

“No, I just want to be inside. I want to stay here, I want to see it all and be here and never be anywhere else, I want firecrackers and pumpkins and circuses, I want Christmases and Valentines and Fourths, like we’ve seen.”

(And, in typical Bradbury fashion, one little boy is caught by the teacher and heart-breakingly unable to join his two companions in the past.)

Hopefully, Ray is somewhere where it always fall and spring and summer, where it is Christmas and Valentines and the Fourth. And is “inside the big house, in the candlelight, [where] someone is pouring cold apple cider all around, to everyone, no matter who they are.”

Firefly and Serenity

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

I should have a feature-length post on this, but for the moment, I’ll like to Agony Booth’s nice video review of Serenity. The thing is, I watched Serenity as someone who had not seen a single second of Firefly. I liked it a lot, enough to make me buy the series and watch it. But I do agree with him: you did have that feeling of being at a great party where you didn’t know anyone. Once I’d watched the series, the movie was even better.

Fantasy Death

Monday, May 14th, 2012

This article, which talks about the way fantasy and sci-fi fans react to characters being killed off, reach a conclusion I find ridiculous:

I believe the discomfort comes down to the base fear of death and uncertainty that people face every day. Death is a subject that makes people uncomfortable. It doesn’t surprise me then that people would have such emotional reactions to fictional character death. They come to fiction to be taken away from the concerns of their everyday life. When confronted with the sudden death of a beloved character, viewers and readers are jarred into dealing with the uncertainty of life in their fiction and that can be unnerving. Look at reactions to the first murder in Psycho, or the death of Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter as examples outside of Martin and Whedon if you will, as they’re not the only writers who use the tactic to drive the emotional point home.

This is psychoanalytical bullshit. The reaction of fans is much more down to Earth. They realize that these characters are fictional. And so killing them off is the writer’s choice, not something that just happened. Even the phrase “killing them off” acknowledges this.

What fans object to is not a character dying, but a character being killed in what feels like an arbitrary and capricious way. No one — NO ONE — objected to Spock being killed in Star Trek II. It was a great way to go, it was an emotional wallop and it was utterly consistent with the theme of the movie and his character. It was one of the best moments in the movies. People did object to Data being killed in Star Trek: Nemesis because it felt arbitrary and stupid. There was no reason for it to happen other than to shock us and try, unsuccessfully, to recreate the punch from Star Trek II.

Numerous sci-fi/fantasy deaths are well-regarded: Theoden’s fall in Lord of the Rings, Vader in Star Wars, Roy in Blade Runner, Ries in The Terminator, Kong in King Kong, Theo in Children of Men, Kosh in Babylon 5, the Knight’s pending death in Seventh Seal and Dumbledore’s fall in Harry Potter. All of these were cases were the death was consistent, reasonable and even noble.

If you look at the deaths that are poorly regard, they tend to be of the arbitrary “eh, shit happens” type: Trinity and Neo in The Matrix Revolutions, Padme in Revenge of the Sith, Ripley in Alien 3 or almost all the death in The Dark Tower.

I have not seen Game of Thrones or Buffy, but I did see Serenity. I didn’t object to the characters being killed. What I most objected to was Wash being killed so arbitrarily (and even then, I didn’t object that much, even though I loved his character). Yes, life is like that, especially a dangerous life. But we want to see our characters go down fighting, to die for a reason.

I mean, seriously: you’re going to take us on a journey with magic and swords or laser guns and faster than light travel; and suddenly you want to be all realistic when it comes to the characters being killed?

That’s the problem. We realize that we are in a fantasy world. And if our characters are going to go down — by the choice of the writer — we want them to go down for a reason.

The Best Sci-Fi

Friday, July 8th, 2011

I just stumbled upon this list, compiled last year, of the best 25 sci-fi/fantasy movies of all time. Considering that I just said that 2009 had four great entries into the genre, I thought I’d lay out my thoughts.



Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Having had more than a week to think about the “must-see” movie of this year, I still like it quite a bit. The science is ridiculous, of course, and not always consistent. But as an entertaining thriller, it’s yet another feather in Christopher Nolan’s cap. He has yet to make a bad movie.

What’s really interesting to me is that, over the last year, we’ve had no less than five very good science fiction movies hit the screen. This after a long long wasteland in which no good science fiction movies were being made (roughly between The Matrix and WALL-E). But Avatar, Moon, District 9, Star Trek and Inception were all good, even great. They featured novel ideas, good writing and great plotting. And you can even see the fore-runners of this surge in movies from the past few years like the aforementioned WALL-E and the vivid Children of Men.

I’m sure Time Magazine will come up with some reason why this micro-trend is happening. Back when Potter and LOTR were dominating the box office, TIme ran a front-page article claiming that the stampede to fantasy movies was a cultural attempt to escape from the stress of the War on Terror. I’m not making this up. Apparently, when both series were being green-lighted, the makers knew terrorism was going to be a big deal and we’d need something to escape to. It never occurred to Time, Inc. that people will go to good films no matter what the genre and it just so happened that the two best franchises were in the fantasy genre.

So I’m sure the recent spate of sci-fi success will stimulate someone to claim its escapism from the economy or something. Maybe. But I think it’s just that people like good movies. And the recent sci-fi films have been very good.

Post Scriptum: On the planes to and from Oz, I caught the movies Kick-Ass and Iron Man 2. The former was much better than I expected. I know there was a lot of controversy over the depiction of a 12-year-old girl hurling profanity and slaughtering rooms full of bad guys (Roger Ebert hated the movie because of this). But the depiction was so ridiculously over the top, I couldn’t take it seriously and just enjoyed the ride. The latter also exceeded my low expectations, although I wasn’t that enamored of it. I’m getting a little tired of bigger badder CGI smash-em-ups. The best things about Iron Man 2 were the interactions of the characters. More of that and less explosions for movie 3 would do nicely, thank you.

The TV Curve

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Cracked, again one of my favorite websites, has an infographic on the rise and fall of TV shows, arguing that they start out shaky in the first season, get better the second, reach a plateau and then start to decline by the sixth.

This is more accurate than they realize. One thing I used to do was copy episode ratings from and see how the quality of shows changed over time. I love analyzing pointless data — hence the astronomy career. Anyway, the ratings allowed me to look the evolution of TV shows from a biased but consistent point of view. Biased, because they are online ratings and do not necessarily reflect the general audience’s perception. But consistent, because they are the same or similar audiences (and the registration requirement mitigates vote rigging).

A few things I discovered, based entirely on these ratings:

First, most TV shows tends to follow a pattern very similar to the one described by Cracked.

1) At first, the quality is uneven, slowly improving, but with the occasional clunker thrown in.

2) The show hits its stride and is consistently good.

3) The clunkers begin to reappear and the quality falls.

4) The show ends.

No show, none, exemplifies this pattern better than The X-Files. I started watching in season four, when it was simply outstanding television. The sixth season was still good but the seventh was hurting, the eight was bad and I didn’t even watch the ninth. As the infographic notes, a big problem becomes twisting characters to fit plot … in this case, keeping Mulder and Scully from hopping into the sack because the writers thought it would ruined the show. It would have … but sometimes you got to let characters do what characters are going to do.

Some shows have an accelerated curve. Star Trek hit its stride almost immediately but had a bad third season. I would argue that Friends did the same thing — putting together a couple of great seasons before falling apart and turning its characters into caricatures.

Other shows end before the decay phase can kick in. Babylon 5 was consistently great after the first half of its first season. It decayed a little bit in the early fifth season but recovered by the end. Fortunately, by ending the series at five seasons and having the plot written in advance, Joe prevented the decay phase. Star Trek the Next Generation also lacked a decay phase, although, in my opinion, it was showing some decisive cracks in its seventh season.

Doctor Who shows a number of interesting patterns. The ratings jump when it went to color, stay high through the 70’s, peaking in the late-Pertwee, early-Baker eras. The ratings collapse in the Baker II and McCoy era before recovering with a strong season right before the show was cancelled.

Although I haven’t run the numbers on the latest season, the first four seasons of the new series were rated as high as the classic series, with a slow improvement in both quality and consistency. This improvement is mostly the disappearance of dreck like Love and Monsters.

So how did Doctor Who avoided the typical pattern of improvement, peak and decline? Or at least stretch it out over 26 years? By constantly turning over actors, directors and producers. Doctor Who was constantly remaking itself — from the educational show of Hartnell to the suspense of Troughton to the action-adventure of Pertwee to the gothic horror of early Baker. In fact, the decline of Doctor Who occurred, quite possibly, because a producer who had reinvigorated the show stayed on too long.

That’s one of the great things about Russell T. Davies leaving Doctor Who. He did a great job, but his era was showing cracks at the end, with episodes getting more and more outlandish and ridiculous. Fortunately, Matt Smith and Steven Moffat have, to some extent, reinvented the show and we’re looking at another good run.