Observations on science fiction, writing, life and whatnot

Posts tagged “movies

Bradbury had the imagination and a way with words

Ray Bradbury in my mind was one of the top-tier science fiction writers of trailblazers and inspirations. And now they’re all gone — Isaac Asimov. Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Bradbury.
These were the ones I thought of when I thought “science fiction,” especially in my youth. Clarke was the one I remember reading first and it might have been the cover that caught my eye. I got to the others eventually, each pressing itself into my brain (though I have to admit Heinlein not as much as others, but I really can’t say why).
And thinking of Bradbury as an SF writer doesn’t really do him justice. He did write SF, but it had its own style. The popular way to judge SF is if it’s “hard” or “soft.” To say Bradbury was soft is a misnomer. “Lyrical” is a better term.
And Bradbury could be lyrical about pretty much anything. A sea creature falling in love with a lighthouse (when you see an illustration of a sea creature knocking down a lighthouse, “love” isn’t the thing that comes to mind). A virtual-reality playroom (long before anyone could explain the room with the term “virtual reality”). A circus-carnival train. Mars. Burning books.
OK, I said “lyrical,” not happy. That playroom might have been a marvel of technology, but the kids used it for deadly purposes. Who picks up one generation’s new technology faster? That generation’s offspring, leaving the adults befuddled — and vulnerable. Bradbury saw that. Circuses and carnivals are exciting and wondrous things for young boys, but the glitter and and the noise can cover up some nasty surprises. And government-sponsored book-burning isn’t always as far-fetched as we’d like to think. Bradbury may have been lyrical in his writing, but never obscured the point he was trying to make about ourselves, our technology and our futures. (Although I have to say that lyricism did get in my way. Sometimes I had trouble getting around all those similes and metaphors and the words dropped in to make a sentence more rhythmical. Just me, I guess.)
One thing I never will take away from Bradbury, though, is imagination. That’s what drives successful storytelling and he had it in spades. In this age where the creative impulse is little more than taking someone else’s work and prequelizing and sequelizing it or dumping vampires or zombies into it or gussing it up with awesome CGI makes sometimes Bradbury seem quaint. While imagination does manage to show up occasionally in contemporary culture — see Pixar as example: Wall-E, Up, Toy Stories I-III — it’s definitely taken a back seat. Jerry Schuster, imaginer of Superman, once boasted he could write a story about a Coca-Cola bottle.* Bradbury could, too, if he wanted. And it would be a story you would want to read.
Imaginative writers still write in the SF and fantasy fields following the paths Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke and Heinlein blazed. And they’re not just copying and pasting; they’re original, entertaining and just plain good. Check out the writers listed on this page if you want a place to start.
Bradbury is gone, but his legacy is secure.

*Where did I get this? From Larry Tye’s new book, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero. I haven’t finished it yet, but so far, it’s a good read.


In a galaxy where special effects allow knights in robes to battle with high-tech swords

So the 100th anniversary of the Star Wars movies has come …

Excuse me, not 100? Just 20? Huh – seems like a long, long time ago.

Maybe it’s because the known universe has been inundated with Star Wars-related stuff. The creators of Star Wars don’t want you ever to forget the films, which is why they re-release them every time new technology come along. When workable Smell-O-Vision finally reaches theaters, you can bet the odors that permeate Jabba the Hut’s lair will soon be wafting through the theater to your olfactory delight.

Some folks even have gone nostalgic in remembering where they were when the first film came out as if it was some sort of worldwide disaster. “Yeah, I was workin’ at my sewer job that year an’ I took my girl and we was blown away by it. We liked movie one and two, but the others kinda stank, knowhutImean?”

The wonder and excitement started right at the beginning when that huge spaceship rumbled over our heads bearing down on that poor little rebel ship, a scene that has become iconic in American film. Movie special effects had been slowly improving over the years, but the use of computers finally gave us believable spaceships. The later sequences of the fighters going up against the star destroyers (or cruisers or whatever, why does everyone fall back on the Navy for outer space terms?) enthralled us because they were new. Never mind that the battle tactics and physics were all wrong for outer space, it was a hoot to watch.

The story itself is as old as the hills; Joseph Campbell and all that, plus liberal helpings from Hidden Fortress, right down to the bickering servants. That’s OK, though, the hero’s journey story still resonates. Burying old plots under glittering special effects is a Hollywood tradition, especially these days. Look at Avatar.

Star Wars sometimes is called a western in outer space. No, it’s a fantasy, pure and simple. George Lucas knows fantasy, he does not know science fiction. Jedi Knights=wizards, light sabers=swords, Princess Leia=Princess Who Must Be Rescued, Darth Vader=Evil Dragon, the Force=magic, R2-D2 and C-3PO=dwarfs/comic relief, Han Solo=the expert swordsman/archer. Spaceships and blasters alone do not make a science fiction movie. Because of Star Wars, a lot of swordplay appears in so-called SF movies nowadays. Why? Because the filmmakers, harking back to days of ancient battles, likely consider one-on-one battles more honorable, or at least more visually spectacular. (Steven Spielberg parodies this when Indiana Jones simply shoots the tall guy with the sword. Was this barb aimed at Lucas?)

As I said, since that day 20 years ago, we’ve seen a relentless barrage of Star Wars movies, TV shows, Internet episodes, books, children’s books, dolls, toys, lunchboxes, bedsheets and who knows what else. It’s as if Lucas wants to expunge anything that doesn’t have to do with Star Wars (Star Trek especially). It’s not enough to make millions on the movies, he’s got to make billions with all that other crap.

I certainly wouldn’t want to live in the Star Wars universe. Beyond the lack of anyone in that universe having any sense of style (Jedi knights in bathrobes, anyone?) are the constant wars. A kid growing up seems limited to two choices as an adult: Storm Trooper or merchant. No art, science, exploration for the sake of exploration.

When Darth Vader first emerged from the smoke in part one—uh, part four—the first movie, I had hoped it wasn’t a human inside that carapace. I wanted whatever was inside to be more machine than man, that we would never see the being inside. Alas …

Let’s play a mind game here. Let’s suppose it played out as I had envisioned. Would it be a better film? Perhaps not, but it will be more intellectually satisfying. To me, at least.

Darth Vader is a creature formed out of pure malevolence and given life through manipulation of the dark side of the Force. Who gives it this twisted life energy? The Emperor. He’s physically small and we get only brief glances of his face. He stays in the background, rarely seen, but rules through terror and fear with his loyal surrogate as his enforcer. (This would need a stronger back story that just someone trying to take over an Imperial Senate, but one thing at a time, please.) Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda are hiding in their miserable little holes because they cannot stand against Vader. They tried soon after he was created and both suffered serious damage physically and mentally. Then along come this farmboy who not only revives old memories but demands his right to vengeance for the torture-murder of his mother and the death of his father. Kenobi and Yoda tremble at the idea.

Kenobi sacrifices himself on the Death Star to save Luke, Leia and the others, but it’s not a quiet death. He dies screaming as Vader not only pierces him with his light-saber but tears Kenobi’s mind apart with blasts from the dark Force. Even though the blast door slams shut as in the movie, Vader turns his energy on it and begins burning his way through. Luke screams at Han to get the hell out of there, but Han sort of ignores him until Leia – who can feel the malevolence, too – grabs Han by the neck and says “Get us the fuck out of here now!” He does, but barely.

In the attack on the Death Star, Vader doesn’t need wingmen, he just plows through the rebel fleet (maybe he doesn’t even need a ship). Vader is just about to smash Luke, but hesitates because the Emperor feels the Force around Luke and is puzzled. The hesitation is just long enough for Han to do his just-in-time schtick. (And it takes much more effort to destroy the Death Star because in my universe, the architects aren’t dolts.)

Yoda is reluctant to train Luke not because the boy is clumsy and ADD, but because he is too powerful. “Too much like his father, he is. From this will come disaster.” Luke does falls into the trap Vader has set. Vader toys with him while the Emperor confirms what he’s been suspecting. Luke is is barely clinging to life when the visage of the Emperor appears ‘twixt Luke and Vader. “You do not have to die, Luke,” the Emperor says. “Come with me. I can heal you, I can give you power undreamed of. You have it in you already, for I am your father.”

Cue denial scream, fall through the vent tunnels, rescue by Han Han’s friend who betrayed him to Vader Leia, Chewbacca and the ‘droids.

In the final confrontation in the second Death Star, Vader again blasts Luke all over the place. The Emperor says all he has to do is acknowledge him as his father and the pain will stop. Luke refuses, but on the point of death, lets slips a thought about his his relationship to Leia.

“A sister!” the Emperor growls as lightning flashes around him. “I was deceived! Twins! Well, shall we have a reunion?”

The Emperor learns through Luke where Leia is. (And no, she’s not fighting alongside teddy bears to destroy the shield generator for Death Star 2.0. My smart architects and engineers know the best place for a shield generator is inside the shield it generates.) He dispatches Vader on a shuttle and after a brief skirmish captures Leia but brings Han as a bonus. Both are dumped before the Emperor. Han is chained to something and rages helplessly as the Emperor tortures Leia. “I offer you both power! I offer you life! I offer you a universe beyond your wildest imaginings! Acknowledge me or die horribly like your mother did. Oh, she lasted a long time, but there wasn’t much left when I got through. Leia? No? Luke? No? Then die, die, I made Vader, he’s my future, I don’t need either of you!!”

Leia’s screams ignite something in Luke. For an instant, his eyes reflect the look of the dark side, the eyes of the Emperor. The Emperor gloats for that second, but Luke reaches down inside to the lessons of Kenobi and Yoda, to the farm where his aunt and uncle were mercilessly slaughtered, into his soul that’s on the brink of being destroyed. He roars, breaks off the mental energy that had bound him. In a savage fight, he destroys Vader, tears him apart the way Vader did Kenobi. The Emperor is the one screaming now, and with Vader gone, he is diminished. Luke doesn’t hesitate, he grabs the Emperor and hurls him down the reactor shaft where he’s destroyed with the sound of a moth hitting a bug zapper. Luke’s body shakes as he wrestles with himself over which side ultimately will win. He dashes over to Leia, cradles her in his arms, finds she’s still alive, whereupon he relaxes, knowing the bright, good thing did survive and there’s hope for him, too. He can’t help himself: he weeps.

Now that’s a hero.


Three short movie reviews

The Secret World of Arrietty
From the studio that gave us Spirited Away and My Neighbor Tortoro, this is a Japanese take on The Borrowers, a British series of stories about little people who live in the walls of our houses and borrow what they need. “Japanese” because no real villains threaten the main characters (just a befuddled housekeeper), no one chases anyone else all over the place and nothing blows up. It’s subject is connections we make with other beings, courage, and ties to family. It ends on a bittersweet note, and I’d bet the last voice-over by the boy was added for American audiences because the Disney company — the distributor — doesn’t think Americans will accept ambiguous endings. It is a lovely, tranquil movie, paced more for quiet meditation than over-the-top action. While Hayao Miyazaki, the director of most of the studio’s famous films, co-wrote the script, he stepped aside for Hirosama Yonebashi, a young director at the studio. The passing of a torch?

Chronicle
I had high hopes for this. It started out well enough exploring what teen-agers could do if given nearly limitless power. It then goes cliche on us, becoming just another story about the oppressed, neurotic kid taking revenge. If you’ve seen Akira, if you’ve seen Carrie, you know how it turns out. A main rule in science fiction literature is that if the science is removed and the story still stands, it’s not science fiction. The same is true for movies: If the fantastic element is removed,and the story still stands, then it doesn’t need the special effects. Such is the case here; the deterioration of an adolescent soul can be explored better with mundane reality. Add that to the plot holes and the movie just collapses.

The Descendants
Nothing fantastic here, just a story about human beings in the mundane world. A story where the locale is, as has been noted by other reviewers,a character, too. Part of the plot revolves around Hawaii’s landscape and the human history that has swirled around the islands. George Clooney plays a father who has paid too much attention to work instead of family. When his wife is knocked into a coma in a boating accident, he has to reconnect with his daughters. And he has to decide whether to sell a huge plot of land on Kauai to developers who plan to build more hotels, more golf courses, more places for people unconnected to anything on the islands to come and stay few days, lie in the sun in scanty clothing, then go home without touching, or being touched by, the place at all. Yes, the family story could be told without the Hawaii subplot, but this is a film about connections: connections with family, connections with the family’s ancestors, connections with the place you live, connections to the history of the place you live — and the impact you have on all of this. (The novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings is good, too.)


Scorsese’s lyrical lecture on the importance of old movies

Of all of the three-D movies I’ve seen so far (granted, I haven’t seen many; dull, crummy movies are still dull and crummy no matter how many dimensions they’re presented in), two of the best are Avatar (the movie that really got the latest 3-D craze going) and Hugo (the movie that tells a story about one of the pioneers of movies by using the latest technology).

One of those movies looked terrific but had a weak story cribbed from dozens of previous sources. The other looked terrific and told a wonderful story based on an imaginative and intelligent children’s book.

Guess which is which.

This not a trick question.

Some people express surprise that Martin Scorsese would make a children’s film after making violent, adult fare such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. Why should this be a surprise? Scorsese is a storyteller; the skills are the same whether you’re doing films about mobsters or prize fighters or eccentric businessmen or Michael Jackson videos. Go take a look at Scorsese’s bio and see how many different types of films he’s had a hand in as writer, director, producer or occasional actor. This is a guy who loves movies so much he’s spearheading the effort to save as many old ones as possible.

The central story of Hugo is about the rediscovery of a pioneer of movies and some of the films he had made. Right up Scorsese’s alley.

The book also about redemption, remembering the past and struggling with the loss of family. Quite a plate for a book for children.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is no ordinary kids book, though. For one thing, it’s 534 pages, but saying it that way is quite misleading. There are pages filled with type, yes, but then many are filled with drawings, which often take over the storytelling. The book’s one chase scene, for instance, is told in drawings, and boy, does that save time and words.

The author, Brian Selznick – cousin to David O. Selznick, producer (Gone With the Wind, Rebecca, King Kong) – is both author and illustrator. Hugo Cabret is an orphan who possesses an automaton his father was working on until he was killed in a fire. An uncle takes Hugo in, teaches him how to wind the clocks at a Paris train station, then disappears. Hugo, in order to survive and keep out of the clutches of the station’s Inspector who wants to put him in an orphanage, takes over the caretaker duties. In his off hours, he tries to repair the automaton using parts he steals from a toy vendor. The vendor catches him, takes his notebook and threatens to burn it. Hugo appeals to the toy-maker’s ward, Isabelle, for help, and eventually they discover the truth about the old man. The automaton provides an essential clue, and, in the movie, it’s fascinating to watch the thing at work. This one, of course, is a special effect, but in their day, such mechanical marvels really did do some amazing things.

Scorsese, of course, tweaks the story a bit. In the book, Hugo and Isabelle refuse to tell each other the obvious plot points until it becomes annoying. The movie lessens the need for this, but it also leaves out Isabelle’s slamming a door on Hugo’s hand, thus preventing him from winding the station clocks, which fall behind, which leads the Inspector to figure out Hugo’s secret, who then captures him. In the movie, Hugo’s capture stems from a different set of circumstances, but in this case, the book is better.

The book’s drawings gives us glimpses of 1930s Paris and Hugo’s world in the train station, but Scorsese’s use of 3-D immerses us. There are the usual 3-D gimmicks, of course – a guitar neck sticking out, a wrench falling from a great height and into the viewer’s face, a pendulum slicing into the frame, a locomotive engine careening out of control and into the audience. (The latter recalls an early silent, black-and-white film of a train pulling into a station that caused audience members to duck and scream. The bit is shown in Hugo, causing a few chuckles from the “sophisticated” modern audience, including one who almost shouted “Look out!” to a woman who he thought was about to be beaned by a meatball during a 3-D trailer for Cloudy with Meatballs.)

Scorsese goes beyond these gimmicks. We see ceilings high above us, the massive walls around us. We’re jostling among the travelers hurrying to meet a train, a scene which turns to terror for Isabelle when she’s knocked down and nearly trampled; we feel each jab in her ribs, wince at the sight of a foot aimed at her head. Scorsese knows how to use 3-D as a device to tell an entire story, not just make us dodge the occasional object. The storyteller again, gently lecturing us about the past and why it’s important to save it while entertaining us using all the tools he has available to him. For instance, when the kids climb high into a clock tower and gaze out over 1930s Paris at night – yeah, that’s real movie magic.

(The movie also does a better job with period costumes and architecture. Note to Selznick: If you’re going to use drawings to illustrate stories in historical times, a little research helps with the verisimilitude.)

And who is the filmmaker pioneer the book and movie are about? Well, reviewers already have let that cat escape from the bag, but if you don’t already know, go read the book or see the movie. You won’t be disappointed, and you’ll actually learn something.

In an entertaining way, of course.