Dry Sci-Fi

These past few weeks I’ve been frustrated with science fiction movies. There is no shortage of new ones, but almost none grab my attention. Why would I go to the theater for Transcendence when I didn’t even go see The Matrix? Neither trailer grabbed me. Integrating consciousness with a machine isn’t new, and I’m guessing that’s what Transcendence is about. When I saw The Matrix eventually, I was satisfied that it was basically Star Wars meets Lawnmower Man meets Tron meets church, and I saw all that when I was young.

Science fiction may seem the ripest genre for the film industry, as special effects now allow for so much that would have previously been impossible. But far out gadgets and alien planets have never been the pull for me; they are eye candy, the stuff of trailers. What draws me into science fiction are ideas that excite me because I’ve never thought of them before.

These ideas should form a world that I can recognize, though it is different from the world I occupy. That world should give rise to characters I can relate to, but who are different from the people I know. And these characters should guide me through that world and show me something meaningful. I should come away from a great science fiction story questioning the established models of my own world. In short, my mind should be blown.

Great sci-fi is tough because a lot of great ideas have already been taken. 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968 and remains the all-time champion. The absorbing world of Bladerunner was created in 1982, and in 2009 new 3D technology and a $250M budget didn’t bring Avatar even close. Alien and Terminator were solid, but didn’t blow my mind.

Are we running out of good ideas? No. There are more ideas out there than ever, and new ideas come from novel combinations of previous ideas. Inspiration shows us ideas from a new angle. Primer, Children of Men, Moon and Upstream Color are all great modern sci-fi movies that got me excited about the genre again despite the fatuous Hollywood remake of Solaris. Looper was pretty decent too.

But no matter how enthused I get about sci-fi, there’s still something that turns me off from going to the theater for blockbusters like District 9 (which I eventually saw and did not enjoy) or Gravity or Oblivion or Transcendence. Maybe it’s the trailers that turn me off, or the word of mouth, or maybe it’s the audacity of studios putting hundreds of millions of dollars into old, mediocre ideas, but I have no desire to encourage them by seeing their movies at the theater.

I must be missing some gems, so if anybody out there wants to enlighten me, leave me a list of your favorites in the comments.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Jodorowsky's DuneIn 1974, the new guru of psychedelic underground cinema Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to make a sprawling, trippy adaptation of the science fiction novel Dune by Frank Herbert. The adaptation was never made, but fortunately for us the new documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune gives us the next best thing: an impassioned blow for blow of the creative process by the man himself.

Jodorowsky sells this movie with his magnetic personality, and turns what is essentially a documentary of talking heads and still images into a spiritual quest to transcend the material plane. He explains that he wanted Dune to give audiences an LSD experience without taking any drugs. He wanted this movie to be a prophet, a psychopomp, and a god. He explains it all with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, and he is completely serious.

His mission was to assemble a group of spiritual warriors to make the film, and Jodorowsky brims with enthusiasm as he explains how he assembled his team: writer Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Total Recall, Prometheus); artists Moebeus, Chris Foss and H.R. Giger; Orson Welles; Salvador Dali; Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd, and Jodorowsky’s own son Brontis, who underwent two years of extensive spiritual and martial arts training for the role of Paul Atreides.

Bound up in a massive, glossy tome are drawings for every character, costume and set illustrations in detail, the full script, and the entire storyboard sketched by Moebius of over 3000 windows. Very few copies were made of the book, and Michel Seydoux, Dune’s intended producer, sent the coveted items to film studios as a selling tool.

The lore of this film is massive, inspired, star-studded, and ultra-ambitious. For this documentary, essentially a eulogy for a dead project, I couldn’t ask for better subject matter. But anyone familiar with film production knows that the process is a series of compromises, and often where the ambition is largest, the pressures of the industry weigh the most.

Jodorowsky is a visionary, and nobody has ever made anything quite like his movies. Particularly impressive are the mystical spaghetti western El Topo and the psychedelic film par excellence The Holy Mountain. But re-watching these films (as I sometimes do) reveals slight cracks in the technical edifice, imperfections in the execution, minutely skewed camera angles, dated special effects, and some grating sound design. Jodorowsky is a master, but inspiration and vision are his strongest suits. With studio money and input, I question whether the final product would have satisfied his vision.

As it turns out, Hollywood was afraid of Jodorowsky and no studios were willing to furnish the $15M budget. Watching the expressions of the artists interviewed in Jodorowsky’s Dune, I was impressed by the expansive feeling of “what might have been,” a sentiment shared by everyone so greatly it seemed like a bittersweet triumph that Dune became a legend instead of a film (disregarding David Lynch’s version).

As a consolation prize we see the disparate parts of Dune reflected in a myriad of groundbreaking science fiction works like Alien, Blade Runner, and Contact, and in Jodorowsky’s own comic books. The ideas behind Jodorowsky’s adaptation have resonated strongly through the film world for decades until finally, solve et coagula, we have Jodorowsky’s Dune, a fully entertaining documentary about the passions that drive art.

 

Adapting Ender’s Game

Ender's GameEnder’s Game strikes me as a good example of the pros and cons of adapting novels for the screen. In a novel, psychological complexity is on full display and the internal life of the protagonist generally occupies our attention. Movies are visual and aural, so they are more spectacular, but movies can only show us so much psychology. This is why most adaptations miss the mark.

The book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a beautiful, insightful science fiction novel in which a young cadet comes to terms with his destiny as humanity’s savior in a war against a powerful alien race. His training, begun from a very early age, is emotionally ruthless and isolating, and our hero is deprived of an outlet for his gentle nature. Instead, all his hours are occupied by the schemes of Colonel Graff, whose job it is to hone Ender Wiggin into a mercilessness, strategic genius, even as Ender struggles against bullying and the playground politics of his fellow cadets.

The “plot”, the external actions taken, the strange environments, and the other characters are in the novel totally subservient to Ender’s emotional journey. It’s this journey that makes the novel great, and these elements are the most difficult to translate to the screen. For one thing, Ender’s sustaining love for his sister and the fear he has of his brother are almost completely cut from the film simply to accommodate a normal run-time for a blockbuster.

Much of the emotional nuance also has to be cropped from the screenplay for time, so what remains are the larger emotional notes, the most obvious conflicts with the least subtlety. All the minor wins and losses Ender experiences in the novel must be swept under the rug, and only when they’ve cut that content and finished the screenplay do they begin looking for an actor to portray what’s left.

Actors have a tall order when it comes to adapting literature. They bring their own experiences to bear when they read a screenplay, and do what they can to express their roles. But they can’t really compete with our imagination, which in a novel fills the ambiguous details and idealizes characters and action. Asa Butterfield played Ender and did a fine job, though I felt none of the deep empathy that I felt with the character in the novel.

But movies do have their own weaponry that novels cannot touch. Where the movie really delivers is in its special effects. Unlike reading the novel, watching Ender’s Game is a treat because we actually get to see the amazing sets, the charismatic faces of Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley, and the slow ballet of a zero gravity practice chamber. We get to experience it empirically. The novel describes these elements very well, but it’s a different experience altogether to engage your eyes and ears, visual and auditory cortices with the crafts of Hollywood.

Unfortunately, what I loved most about the book, what I thought truly made it a great one, didn’t make it into the movie. The novel was fairly inspiring while the movie was merely entertaining. I wasn’t surprised by this, as I can probably count on one hand the number of film adaptations that stand up to their prose counterparts.

Rated R – For Ridiculous

The MPAA movie rating system really baffles me. I’ve always found it totally amazing that The Blues Brothers (1980) is rated R. A few swear words, an N-bomb (spoken by Cab Calloway), and some mild blasphemy must be the reason for the rating since the mild violence is comedic and there is no other questionable content. Are these really the ideas we need to protect young people against?

Compared to the average R-rated comedy these days (think The Hangover or The Wolf of Wall Street), Blues Brothers is mild in the extreme. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has the same rating and features several gut wrenching rape and torture scenes. The MPAA, the supposed moral authority on these matters, feel the content of Dragon Tattoo is just as risky for young viewers as The Blues Brothers.

What’s more confusing is that in the U.S. a child can see an R-rated movie as long as he or she is accompanied by a parent or guardian. An 18 year old can take his 12 year old brother to see most horror movies. It’s only when you get into the NC-17 rating that these supposedly condemnable contents are truly off-limits to younger minds. That is, younger minds without internet access.

Because a child is accompanied by a guardian, he or she must be psychologically sophisticated enough to separate fact from fiction and come away from the movie unscathed. Or do they think that guardian will tell them exactly when to avert their eyes and plug their ears? Or do they think the contents of a movie like Saw couldn’t really be damaging to a child? No more damaging than The Blues Brothers, I suppose.

I don’t think the MPAA should try harder to keep kids out of the theaters. I agree with them that the onus should be on the parents, but those parents will be able to do a much better job when the ratings make consistent sense.

Now everybody go watch The Blues Brothers.

The Blues Brothers

How To Suck At Commercials

For a while I’ve been enjoying these stupid smear ads run by the Conservative Party against Justin Trudeau. They seem like the work of high school girls who are pissed Justin didn’t ask them to prom. Every ad uses the same clip of Trudeau taking off his shirt.

These ads are mysteriously hard to find online, but you can watch and learn all about them in this nice Huffington Post article. They also point out that the clip of Trudeau taking off his shirt is from a mock striptease at an Ottawa charity fundraiser, not that it should matter.

Someone was kind enough to post twelve seconds of one to YouTube:

All the commercials have been exceedingly dumb, but my favorite is this one about marijuana. Trudeau has said he is in favour of legalization and regulation. The commercial asks us to “Imagine. Selling marijuana just like cigarettes and alcohol,” while on screen it reads “MARIJUANA available in stores. More accessible to KIDS.”

Would any conservative argue that we should make cigarettes illegal because they are too accessible to kids at the corner store? No, because the age limitation and the policing of it are part and parcel of the legalization.

We all know smear campaigns are the lowest form of politics, so the conservatives are at least being upfront about being grimy. But what blows me away is their incredulous “Selling marijuana just like cigarettes and alcohol.” Could you pick a better sentence to prove you’re divorced from reality?

Let me embellish the sentence with a fact or two. “Imagine. Selling marijuana, which causes 0 deaths every year and which users have described as ‘pleasant’, just like cigarettes and alcohol, which cause over 40 000 deaths per year (in Canada), and which we are happy to sell to your 18 and 19 year old kids because we make sweet, sweet profits from it.”

I do not understand the mentality of the target audience of these commercials. Who, sitting at home on a Tuesday night, sees this commercial and is struck with horror at the thought that marijuana might be sold alongside cigarettes? Most modern research has show marijuana to be mostly benign and medically beneficial. There is obviously some deviously idiotic dogma at work here.

It’s true; Harper’s generation inherited their beliefs from a massive propaganda campaign to smear marijuana, and maybe conservative old dogs don’t learn new tricks. So despite every piece of available evidence and good sense, they want to go on selling cigarettes and alcohol but suppress cannabis because they just “know it’s bad.”

So here is what I get out of these conservative ads: Conservatives are willfully ignorant of “empirical evidence” and “truth”, they feel morally superior and they’re willing to play dirty to get what they want. I’m not generally a political person, but they’ve got my attention now. And that’s how to suck at commercials.