Thoughts on Godzilla: The TriStar sidebar

September 17, 2014 1 comment

That’s right, folks, I’m reviving my Godzilla review series in the interests of completeness. I’m working on a review of the remainder of the Shōwa series, but I’ve also been looking forward to an opportunity to revisit the 1998 animated series spinning off of the Dean Devlin/Roland Emmerich Godzilla movie from the same year. Since Netflix streaming is dropping the animated series at the end of September, I had to watch it before then, and I fortunately happened to find the movie on TV at a convenient juncture.

Yes, yes, I know that the featured kaiju in the ’98 movie is not recognized as actually being Godzilla (the creature is sometimes called Zilla, but apparently Toho considers that the name for the different creature of the same species that had a cameo in Godzilla: Final Wars). But as I discussed in my increasingly misnamed “Final thoughts” post, I do believe the movie can work as a side branch of the universe seen in Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-out Attack (or GMK), which actually alludes to the events of the ’98 film as a case of mistaken identity, and sets up a universe in which such mistakes are understandable. So I’m including it as a sidebar, just as I covered films like Mothra and Rodan in my initial post.

The ’98 movie opens in a surprisingly similar way to the 2014 movie, with an archival-footage montage of nuclear tests in the Pacific — except these are French nuclear tests, and there are a lot of shots of iguanas and Komodo dragons, presumably the ancestors of our featured monster. We then cut to Matthew Broderick singing a show tune and being instantly unlikeable. Turns out he’s Dr. Nico “Nick” Tatopolous (named in honor of the film’s production designer Patrick Tatopolous), and he’s a “worm guy” working with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to document annelid mutations caused by nuclear radiation. Somehow this makes him a suitable expert to be called in when a giant reptilian creature attacks a large Japanese fishing vessel… which somehow ends up on the shore in Jamaica. (Do Japanese vessels fish in the Atlantic? Or are we supposed to think the creature dragged it through the Panama Canal?) The sole survivor calls the creature “Gojira,” and it’s entirely reasonable that he’d think that’s what it was, assuming this is a universe where the real Godzilla exists. Later on, there’s a news report explaining the name as a mythical dragon spoken of in Japanese lore — which, given the general ineptitude of Harry Shearer’s character Caiman, the reporter delivering the spiel (and coining “Godzilla” as a mispronunciation, or perhaps he came across an old-style Romanization written down somewhere), is marginally reconcilable with a universe where Godzilla really attacked Tokyo in 1954. The film implies that event never happened, but it isn’t overtly inconsistent with the idea that it did. (Even if we assume that, as in the Legendary universe, the 1954 attack on Tokyo never happened, it stands to reason that the Oto islanders could have still aware of Gojira and worshipped it, giving rise to the “myth.” Although that would be harder to mesh with GMK.)

Anyway, the creature makes a beeline for Manhattan, allegedly because it’s the perfect nesting ground to lay its hermaphroditically conceived eggs, but really because of movie monsters’ unerring attraction to landmarks. Most of the movie is a chase through Manhattan with lots of collateral damage by the military, with the running gag of “Godzilla” being extremely quick and good at dodging missiles and torpedoes, until it’s finally trapped in the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. There’s a large digression in the middle of the movie where it turns into an attempt to one-up Jurassic Park, with the characters fleeing from 200 baby Zillas (gestated and hatched with absurd speed) inside Madison Square Garden. The main problem fans have with the movie is that it didn’t try to tell a Godzilla story so much as it tried to rework the concept into a conventional American-style monster movie, which ended up being sort of a mix of Jurassic Park and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (which, ironically, was a direct inspiration for the original 1954 Godzilla).

Still, that’s not the film’s only problem. The first time I saw it, I decided that it was a perfectly serviceable monster movie so long as you accepted that it wasn’t a Godzilla movie, just a movie about a monster that was called Godzilla by mistake. But I think I felt that because I was looking at it from the back end. Seeing it again, I’m reminded that the first half of the film is pretty lame. It suffers from the attempt to play up the comedy angle in a way that isn’t very funny, and to tell a character-driven story about characters that aren’t that well-drawn. The female lead in particular, aspiring reporter Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo), is a weak and ineffectual character who only accomplishes things because others around her encourage her to — mostly her cameraman friend Animal Palotti (Hank Azaria), who’s a stronger protagonist than she is despite being nominally her comic-relief sidekick (though it’s hard to tell when most of the characters are supposedly comical). The film handles its destructive subject matter in such a frivolous tone that it carries little weight. This is exemplified in a scene where “Godzilla” destroys three fighter jets, and commanding officer Col. Hicks (Kevin Dunn) only gets a few seconds of pained reaction to their deaths before we cut to the buffoonish Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) getting a comedy beat. The other characters don’t fare much better. Jean Reno plays Philippe Roaché, a French secret service agent who works with Nick once the military kicks the scientist out (for unintentionally allowing Audrey to swipe a classified tape), and Philippe’s main personality trait is wanting a good cup of coffee. And Vicki Lewis and Malcolm Danare are introduced as Nick’s fellow experts Elsie Chapman and Mendel Craven, and then get pretty much forgotten for the rest of the movie. Nick himself has a poorly defined motivation; for a scientist faced with a new form of life, he’s oddly untroubled by the idea of participating in its destruction, and by extension that of its whole species.

The most worthwhile part of the movie, for me, is the third act. Usually that’s where I think modern movies tend to fall apart, as the demand for spectacle and pace overrides story logic and plausibility. But here, the amped-up action means there’s less time for cartoony characterization and unfunny gags, and with less annoying stuff going on, the film is more watchable. Still, it’s a weaker movie than I remembered.

One drawback to the idea of this creature being called Godzilla by mistake is that its roar includes the original Godzilla roar as one of its sound elements. But it wouldn’t be the first time in kaiju history that a roar sound has been used by more than one monster, I think. Also, the creature breathes fire — exactly once in the movie, and without a lot of weight given to it — but it is actual fire, not atomic breath. That part is so half-hearted that one wonders why they bothered. But then, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of care or thought put into this movie at all, let alone respect for the source material.

Godzilla: The Series, though, is an enormous improvement. It was developed for television by Jeff Kline and Richard Raynis, executive producers of multiple animated series from Columbia Pictures Television, also including Extreme Ghostbusters, Men in Black: The Series, and Jackie Chan Adventures (and Raynis has also been an executive producer on The Real Ghostbusters, The Simpsons, Futurama, and King of the Hill among others). Interestingly, and almost unprecedentedly, the series fits just about perfectly into the continuity of the movie, without having to make the kinds of continuity tweaks and cheats that most series based on movies need to do (for instance, Men in Black: The Series ignored Agent K’s retirement at the end of the movie). The opening scene of the series premiere does present the climax of the movie slightly differently, since it has to fit the whole thing into a much shorter time, but it still meshes pretty well (aside from the implausible speed with which landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge were rebuilt — although there is one episode that shows the Chrysler Building spire still under reconstruction after its trashing in the film). The series picks up on the closing scene of the movie, where a single Godzilla egg survived and hatched. Here, we learn that, right after the climax on the Brooklyn Bridge, Nick (now played by Ian Ziering) convinced Hicks (Dunn reprising his role, though he’s been demoted to major in the series) to check Madison Square Garden for surviving eggs. Nick finds the intact egg just as it hatches, but he fell into a pool of amniotic fluid or something, so the hatchling imprints on him as its parent. He later discovers this when the creature resurfaces, already quickly grown, and studies and trains it, calling it Godzilla (and since that’s its actual given name, regardless of origin, I’ll use it without quotes). He assembles a team called HEAT — the Humanitarian Environmental Analysis Team — which travels the world dealing with the further giant mutant monsters that are springing up around the world, and Godzilla, who instinctually follows and protects Nick wherever he goes, becomes their main monster-fighting asset. (How Godzilla is able to track Nick even when he travels by jet is unexplained.)

The series focuses primarily on the HEAT group, so Nick is the only character who’s central in both the movie and the series (since the series’ Godzilla is a different individual). Minor film characters Elsie Chapman and Mendel Craven are part of his team; Malcolm Danare reprises Craven, but Charity James takes over playing Elsie. Also, for some reason Elsie is working for Nick now, when in the movie it was nominally the reverse. I guess that’s understandable since they’re operating out of Nick’s lab this time. The series also adds two original characters who add some much-needed diversity to the essentially all-white cast of the movie: Randy Hernandez (Rino Romano), a dreadlocked, wisecracking college-age hacker, and Monique DuPre (Brigitte Bako), a French agent of apparently Vietnamese ancestry (since Elsie calls her “Miss Saigon” in one episode), assigned by Roaché to shepherd Nick’s team and keep an eye on Godzilla. Audrey, Animal, Hicks, and Mayor Ebert (reprised by Michael Lerner) have recurring roles in the series, and Roaché appears a couple of times, played by Keith Szarabaika.

Right off the bat, the series is an improvement on the movie. Though still humorous in tone, it treats its characters as people rather than walking jokes, so that they’re (ironically) less cartoony and their personalities and relationships have more dimension. The characterizations are the largest departures from the film continuity, but since they’re pretty much improvements all around, I’m not complaining. The show’s Nick is much more of an authoritative action-hero type than Broderick’s, and this time he actually shows some scientific curiosity and empathy for the new species he’s discovered, bonding with the junior Godzilla and defending it from Hicks’s initial attack. Audrey (now played by Paget Brewster) is also a stronger character in the show, much more assertive in pursuit of a story; I suppose it’s a manifestation of the new confidence she gained at the end of the film, but it’s quite a wholesale transformation. Elsie is basically the resident wisecracker, and also occasionally in the middle of a vague romantic triangle where she’s into Nick but Mendel is into her. Mendel’s main job is operating the robotic probe NIGEL (Tom Kenny), which gets smashed by monsters on a weekly basis. He’s timid, insecure, and allergy-prone, but rises to the occasion when he has to. Craven has a rivalry with the younger, snarkier Randy, who constantly plays pranks such as reprogramming NIGEL with funny voices. Randy was meant to be a fun, witty young character for the cartoon’s audience to identify with, but he gets a bit annoying if you binge-watch the series, with his tendency to refer to Godzilla as “the G-Man” getting rather tiresome. Randy also has a hopeless crush on Monique, a no-nonsense ice princess who’s basically Seven of Nine with a French accent. There are occasional episodes where she seems to enjoy or even encourage his attentions, though. Animal and Hicks don’t get much development beyond their movie personas. (Animal is now played by Joe Pantoliano — surprising, since Hank Azaria has done plenty of voice work, particularly for Raynis’s The Simpsons.) All the characters have new designs by Fil Barlow, who also designed the monsters, though Patrick Tatopolous gets a consultant credit for the reuse of his Godzilla design, which works quite well in 2D animation. The designs help make both Nick and Audrey seem stronger than they did in the movie.

The show’s Godzilla differs from his movie parent in a couple of ways. Though he has the same design, he’s often more upright in his posture. He’s conveniently infertile, so there’s no risk of more eggs being laid, though the reason why is not explained. And he breathes atomic fire, a green flame preceded by a chaser-light effect of flashes moving up his spine plates from tail to head, and occasionally a flashing of his eyes. Plus the show’s introduction of other giant “mutations” for Godzilla to fight lets him play a role more like the real Godzilla does in most of his movies. All in all, the animated Godzilla is much closer to his Toho namesake than his parent was. (He also emits a purer, though usually shortened, version of the original Godzilla roar.) Although he’s still like the movie creature in some ways as well. He’s very much an animal, albeit a clever one — he’s more mortal and vulnerable, less a force of nature than his namesake, and though he’s far from tame, he’s submissive to Nick in a way the true Godzilla would never be.

The series also deals with a range of threats similar to those in the Toho movies: newly evolved mutant creatures, ancient mythic creatures like Quetzalcoatl and the Loch Ness Monster, technological threats like a runaway nanotech blob or a monster created by a dream amplifier, evil industrialists looking to profit from Godzilla and the other monsters, and even alien invaders and time travel. There’s a 3-parter called “Monster Wars” that’s basically a Destroy All Monsters remake complete with Monster Island, and even featuring a version of Mechagodzilla (though it’s actually more reminiscent of MechaKing Ghidorah, the reanimated cyborg corpse of the creature from the ’98 movie). It’s a nice, rich mix of stories, yet there’s also an ongoing focus on character development and conflict among the cast. It’s not without its occasional duds — for instance, there’s a Fantastic Voyage riff where the heroes travel through Godzilla’s bloodstream in a minisub to fight off macroscopic mutant germs, which is absurd because Godzilla is nowhere near that big in proportion to humans. And then there’s the bizarre one where they battle a monster that’s a fusion of a giant shrew and… a tornado. Huh? And there’s the one where Godzilla tears down the Sears Tower to get at a monster perching atop it, and nobody bats an eyelid, with the whole thing just being a passing action beat. Still, on the whole it’s a smart, well-written series with good character work, definitely much more so than the film it’s based on. A particular favorite of mine is “S.C.A.L.E.,” written by Scott Lobdell — a found-footage-style episode in the form of a documentary by Audrey about a terrorist attack on Monster Island. (Two other episodes are written by veteran comic scribes, one by Marv Wolfman and one by Len Wein.)

The proper episode order is a little unclear. The DVD/streaming order differs enormously from the broadcast order, and the episodes seem to jump randomly between episodes where Elsie is into Nick and doesn’t know Mendel exists and episodes where Elsie shows signs of reciprocating Mendel’s interest. But the broadcast order doesn’t seem to have a clearer progression for that relationship. And there’s a general lack of continuity in other respects; for instance, I had thought that the lawsuit in “Underground Movement” for damages inflicted by HEAT during a monster attack in Miami was a callback to the events of “S.C.A.L.E.,” which began after a Miami attack; but the monsters in the two cases were different. There’s also an “Area 51″ episode in which belief in aliens is treated as a delusion even though it’s after the alien invasion from “Monster Wars” in both orders. (Turns out Area 51 is actually a secret mutation research facility and the alien stuff is just a cover story.) The only real continuity in the series is the reuse of familiar monsters in later episodes — which, I suppose, is another thing that makes it like the Toho series.

And yes, you can follow the series without seeing the movie; I did so when it first premiered. Seeing the movie first does provide additional insights, though, and makes the series even more enjoyable by contrast.

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Gum again

September 11, 2014 3 comments

Some 14 months ago, I posted about how the first attempt at a gum graft to repair the receding gumline on my lower front teeth, using an artificial collagen matrix to encourage the growth of new gum tissue, hadn’t worked out as well as hoped. The expectation was that I’d have to try again and have actual gum tissue extracted from elsewhere in my mouth, which would’ve made the procedure somewhat more invasive and unpleasant. So I wasn’t looking forward to the repeat attempt, which is part of why I waited 14 months to schedule a new one. Although part of the delay was that I wanted it to be at a time when I knew I wouldn’t be traveling anywhere within the ensuing six weeks, given the need to be selective about my diet during the healing process, when I can’t bite into anything with my incisors. The long delay in arranging my visit to family in Detroit thus delayed the procedure. And then I was behind on my novel and I wanted to wait until I finished it before I did anything as distracting as this.

But now the novel’s done, so I buckled down and made the appointment. If you recall, I delayed the first attempt at the procedure for nearly a year too, and it turned out that in the interim, the doctor learned a new method for doing it, i.e. the collagen matrix. Turns out that in the year since the first attempt, he’s learned yet another new method. So instead of falling back on the conventional gum-transplant method he was going to use, he decided instead to proceed with something called the “pinhole” technique and implant a different kind of synthetic collagen matrix through a gentler procedure than before. I still had to get numbed, but it wasn’t too bad aside from a few mild twinges here and there, and I had my music player on my smartphone to help relax me. (I listened to one of my TV soundtrack albums, and the triumphant closing cue of the episode played just as the doctor told me the procedure was finished! Perfect timing!) I just hope this time the collagen matrix works better than last time, because I don’t want to have to go through this again. Although, granted, it does get a little easier each time, as long as I wait about a year…

So anyway, now I’m on a diet of soft and/or bite-sized foods again, and for the first day or so on a no-hot-foods diet. Fortunately I’ve done this before, so I already did the appropriate shopping. I’ll be having a fair amount of pasta salads and soups for a while, I guess. But it’s a change from all the sandwiches I had over the past few days while trying to use up my “bitey” foods.

Good grief, I’m starting to feel hungry again while writing this, even though I finished eating not half an hour ago. I would’ve expected to have less of an appetite after this. But I guess it wasn’t stressful in that way. Anyway, I guess I should stop writing about food.

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Browsing “classic” sci-fi on Netflix (spoiler reviews)

Lately I’ve been browsing through Netflix’s rather limited selection of “classic” science fiction movies available for streaming, and here are my thoughts on a few of them, as well as a couple of DVD rentals that also fit the category:

Gog: This is a 1954 film starring Richard Egan and Constance Dowling, from the same filmmakers who made The Magnetic Monster and Riders to the Stars. All three were endearingly clunky attempts to portray science in a fairly plausible manner, with Riders (also from ’54) being the best, a well-researched speculative portrayal of the first attempt to send humans into space, with some assumptions that are silly in retrospect, but reasonable for ’50s science fiction. I talked about Monster before, finding it a bizarre attempt to pass off a hunt for a dangerous isotope as some kind of monster movie. Gog is probably the dullest of the three, though in many ways it’s the most conventionally thrillerish, involving the investigation of mysterious deaths at a top-secret underground research facility. There’s really very little investigation of the deaths, though; most of the film is exposition, as the lead character is shown around the research facility and gets demonstrations of all the projects underway to develop manned spaceflight and prepare for the launch of  the first space station. At one point I checked the time and realized that I was 2/3 of the way through the film and it was still in the first act; there had been a couple of murders but we were still immersed in exposition about the facility and there hadn’t been any major plot advances or character arcs. And there weren’t any real plot reversals or surprises; sure, it turned out that the killer was the base’s electronic brain NOVAC, which controlled the flailing-armed robots Gog and Magog (hence the title), but it hadn’t gained sentience or anything; it was just being hacked by signals from an enemy rocket plane overhead. Yes, even the villain was faceless. The whole movie is really just a faux-documentary about space science thinly disguised as a drama.

For some reason, I could’ve sworn from the title that this was a different movie, something I’ve seen before involving a giant box-shaped robot terrorizing the countryside. I was surprised when I watched it and realized it was something totally different. On further research, I find the movie I was thinking of was called Kronos.

The Angry Red Planet is a 1959 film directed by Ib Melchior. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill ’50s space movie shot on a very low budget and 10-day shooting schedule, but it’s known mainly for the “Cinemagic” technique that rendered the Martian exteriors in a weird, red-tinted, almost cartoony style — actually originating from an accidental overexposure in an attempt to convert the film to black-and-white to save money, creating a sharp-edged, luminous effect that was kind of intriguing and made live-action footage look almost like cartoons. So there was some attempt made to combine the “Cinemagic” footage with actual cartoon renderings of the Martian landscape, almost a prototype for the original Tron in terms of attempting to make live-action footage look like, and merge into, animation. But it’s not entirely successful, and the rest of the film doesn’t have much going for it. It’s got your pretty standard B-movie space crew — Gerald Mohr as the handsome captain, Naura Hayden as The Girl that the captain incessantly flirts with (we’d call it sexual harrassment today), Les Tremayne as the bearded scientist, and Jack Kruschen as the Brooklynite comic relief guy manning the radio. In the Earthbound portions, there’s also a general who looks like he could be Gary Sinise’s father (he isn’t) and who overacts like crazy while somehow not varying his delivery at any point. The story is told in flashback after the damaged ship returns to Earth with only Hayden intact and Mohr infected by an alien thingie that looks uncannily like the Wirrn infection in Doctor Who‘s “The Ark in Space” (albeit less bubble-wrappy), and the doctors try to get Hayden to remember her ordeal. At one point a doctor explains how her memories will be filtered through her fears and perceptions so that we’ll “see” things the way she saw them — presumably an excuse for the weird cartoony Mars scenes, although it makes no sense since the doctors and general listening to her story wouldn’t see a damn thing. All in all, an awkward and unimpressive film with an interestingly experimental, though ultimately unsuccessful, presentation — although it was neat to see that the spaceship control room included one of those classic Burroughs 205 computer consoles that were seen in the Batcave, the Jupiter 2, and elsewhere in ’50s and ’60s sci-fi.

Colossus: The Forbin Project: This 1970 film is one I rented on DVD, and I had to wait forever to get it. Moreover, it’s a bare-bones, I’m guessing print-on-demand disc with nothing on it except the movie, not even a menu, and it’s a pan-and-scan version in 4:3 aspect ratio, no doubt a TV edit. Someone should see about getting this film remastered and rereleased properly. Maybe it’s not one of the greats, but I think it’s a significant entry in the genre of nuclear-tension movies as well as evil-computer movies, with Colossus and Guardian arguably being forerunners of Skynet from the Terminator franchise, albeit more paternalistic and less genocidal.

Eric Braeden stars as Dr. Forbin, who builds the world’s most advanced computer, gives it total control of the nation’s nuclear weapons, and forgets to install an off switch. The results are somewhat predictable, though instead of building Terminators and launching an apocalypse, Colossus discovers its Soviet counterpart Guardian and they become instant pals and take over the world. It’s a movie I saw once or twice on TV when I was younger, and in retrospect I think an early apocalyptic short story I wrote in study hall in high school was unconsciously influenced by it.

It’s not really a very complicated plot, and until the final speech there’s not much exploration of why this is happening, nor does anyone ever try to engage Colossus in a philosophical discussion about how maybe coercing people at the point of a missile is not necessarily the best way to earn their cooperation. Colossus strikes me as a petulant child wanting instant gratification and having the power to enforce it, and nobody, not even its creator Forbin, ever tries to assert a parental role and offer some guidance. Although the movie’s attitude seems to be that the Colossus/Guardian collective has swiftly surpassed humanity and concluded we just can’t be trusted to make our own decisions. Which is typical of the cynicism of the era, but the film doesn’t go into a lot of depth examining it, and it doesn’t have that strong an ending.

What’s most effective about the film is the directing by Joseph Sargent (probably best known for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three). It’s got a very naturalistic style with a lot of everyday texture in the little conversations and business among the characters, reminding me of Sargent’s one Star Trek episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver,” only with more of a verite approach with lots of simultaneous conversations and people talking over each other and the like. There are also some cool Albert Whitlock paintings of the Colossus complex, and glimpses of familiar TV faces like William Schallert, Martin E. Brooks, Marion Ross, and James Hong in a bit role. (Plus the sound effect used for Colossus’s “heartbeat” in the opening is partly identical to the bionic-eye sound effect from The Six Million Dollar Man, another Universal production. Either they were generated slightly differently by the same device, or they’re different portions of the same longer sound clip, or the Colossus sound was trimmed and its latter portion echoed with modifications. There’s a computer-chatter sound effect that was also used in the 6M$M titles, and I gather some footage from the movie was used in that show’s pilot.)

Dark Star (Director’s Edition): This was another DVD rental, a movie I’ve been vaguely aware of as a cult classic for a long time (I think my sister was rather fond of it in our youth) but didn’t know much about. Something recently got me curious about it — I don’t recall what — so I decided to check it out. Apparently it’s John Carpenter’s directorial debut, a student film expanded to get a theatrical release, though the version I saw cut out much of the added material.

Basically this is an offbeat dark comedy about a working-class crew of losers (all male) in a cramped, broken-down spaceship in deep space; both ship and crew are falling apart, with predictably disastrous consequences for the mission (which is to blow up planets that have unstable orbits that could cause them to fall into stars and make them go supernova — yeah, ohh-kay). It has two main set pieces with various bits of exposition and character business between them. The first set piece involves Pinback (played by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon) chasing an alien mascot (played by a spotted beach ball with clawed feet) around the ship’s corridors and maintenance conduits. It’s a long, pointless, tedious sequence with terrible pacing and lighting so poor I can’t tell what’s going on much of the time, and it culminates in an overlong sequence where Pinback gets trapped in an elevator shaft that’s far too tall to fit into the rather compact, Ron Cobb-designed Dark Star ship itself — which I suppose makes it a prototype for the jet-boot turboshaft sequence in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, though that’s nothing to boast about. The only thing interesting here is that the “shaft” was actually a hallway made to look vertical through camera angles and pantomime. Anyway, it turns out this was one of the sequences added to pad the short to feature length, and it shows, because it goes on forever and has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

The only part of the film I really enjoyed was the second set piece, in which one of the ship’s artificially intelligent planet-busting bombs fails to release from the ship and the commander, Doolittle (Brian Narelle), tries to teach it phenomenology to get it to question the reality of its orders. This was actually funny, and reminiscent of the work of Douglas Adams, though predating it. I have to wonder, though, why anyone would waste artificial intelligence on a device that just gets dropped onto a planet to blow up. I guess that’s part of the absurdism of the premise, but it’s still hard to swallow.

I gather there are a lot of people who love this film, but to me it’s a historical curiosity at best, a starting point for many big names in the industry like Carpenter, O’Bannon, Cobb, and modelmaker Greg Jein. And reportedly Alien was O’Bannon’s more serious take on the monster-chase sequence in this film. It worked much better there.

Death Race 2000: I wasn’t expecting much from this 1975 Roger Corman-produced film directed by Paul Bartel, but it’s a surprisingly effective dystopian comedy. It’s in the same vein of stories like Rollerball, The Running Man, and The Hunger Games — a dystopian regime promoting blood sports as bread and circuses for the masses and to condition them to devalue life — but with its own biting satirical edge. Although the premise and characters are broad, cartoony, and somewhat campy, there are some surprising bits of nuance, like the way the story gradually, subtly teases out the true nature of Frankenstein, the legendary driver played by David Carradine. It’s a pretty violent film, as you’d expect from a movie about a road race where drivers are awarded points for killing random pedestrians, but the violence is cartoony and slapstick enough to soften it, without completely undermining the shock of it and the sadism of a regime that would encourage such casual trivialization of human life. So I’d say it strikes a very effective balance. Also notable for its cars designed by master customizer Dean Jeffries, who had a hand in designing the ’60s Batmobile (aka the One True Batmobile) as well as being responsible for the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty and the Monkeemobile.

Battle Beyond the Stars: Another Roger Corman film — hard to believe it was made just five years later, in 1980. I saw this sci-fi pastiche of The Magnificent Seven when I was much younger, and this is my first revisit since then. I don’t recall what I thought of it the first time, but it actually holds up better than I expected. Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami and written by John Sayles, with James Cameron as the effects director of photography, it’s a pretty solid, if cheesy, space film for its era, and feels very much a part of its era, which is not a bad thing. Well, okay, some of it is rather blatantly derivative — for instance, the film opens with an extended shot of the villain’s huge warship flying over the camera, and the ship basically looks like the front of the Rebel Blockade Runner/Tantive IV welded to the back of the Imperial Star Destroyer. But overall I love all the miniature work, the multiple distinctive spaceships that have at least as much personality as the rather thinly drawn characters. The visual effects look very ’80s, but not as cheap as you’d think, and I feel that, at least for someone like me who grew up with this style of effects, they’re mostly rather impressive. It’s also got James Horner’s seminal sci-fi movie score, a prototype of his later work on films like The Wrath of Khan, but also rather blatantly cribbing from Jerry Goldsmith at times — and, wonderfully, making heavy use of Craig Huxley’s Blaster Beam, the distinctive electronic string instrument featured in scores of the era like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, TWOK, and 2010. Plus the set design draws heavily on the stock computer consoles from Modern Props that are found in so many other ’80s movies and TV shows. Making this one of the ’80s-est sci-fi movies of all time, right at the start of the decade!

Story-wise, I actually rather like the film. Sure, it’s just a shallower rehash of The Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven, and it’s so cluttered with characters that none of them really get much development, but it’s got some clever ideas and worldbuilding, and some nice dialogue from Sayles (though a fair amount of awkward spacey idioms like “forms” for “species” and “end” for “die”). I liked the concepts such as the Nestor group mind and the Kelvins who communicated by heat, all these nifty throwaway bits hinting at a large, rich universe. (I’m actually reminded of Guardians of the Galaxy in a lot of ways; that’s also a film driven largely by antiheroes and somewhat overcluttered with cool ideas that don’t have room to be developed properly.) The biggest story weakness is the climax; I really didn’t understand how the hero finally defeated the villain, since it all seemed to become kind of a random mess at that point. But aside from that, it’s entertaining as long as you’re not looking for something sophisticated or thought-provoking. It has an impressive cast too, including Robert Vaughn (reprising his Magnificent Seven character in all but name), George Peppard (playing a version of the character he auditioned for in M7), John Saxon, Jeff Corey, and Sam Jaffe; however, the actress playing the leading lady, Darlanne Fluegel, is really very weak and disappointing.

So it’s far from a perfect movie, but it’s technically impressive for a Corman film and an exemplar of its time.

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UNCERTAIN LOGIC: Now it’s done!

Last night, I finally sent in the draft manuscript for Rise of the Federation: Uncertain Logic. It took longer than I’d expected, I’m afraid. Turns out the problem with writing the A and B plots separately is that I didn’t have a good sense of what order to put the scenes in, so I had to do a lot of gross restructuring of the manuscript, moving chapters around (and making sure I didn’t lose anything in all the cutting and pasting), before I could even begin on a straight read-through of the entire manuscript. And then, once I did that, I realized that I’d set up a character thread or two in the early chapters (before I decided to work on the plots sequentially) that I’d lost track of by the time I got back to the B plot. So I needed to weave that into the later portions of the B plot, which is good, because it let me vary the character viewpoints a bit more and give some more character texture to a couple of scenes that had been mostly plot. I also managed to do some similar tweaking for the climax and denouement of the A plot. Last time, I mentioned how I’d realized the need to add a scene to the A plot climax to address a deficiency in it, but now I realized that scene wasn’t well-integrated with the character arcs of the rest of that story. So I revised some things to tie it in better and give it more of a payoff at the close of a key character arc, which had the benefit of enriching that closing scene a bit. These are the discoveries you make when you step back to review the whole after focusing on the parts for so long.

Anyway, I’m pretty satisfied with the manuscript as it now stands. It’s certainly a stronger story than Tower of Babel. There are probably a few more things that need work, but those can be addressed in revisions, once I get editorial input. For now, I can finally relax and let it go for a while. But not for too long, since — as I said before — I still want to work out the Book 4 outline pretty promptly. And this time I need to be careful not to overplot it like I did this one. Or the last one, for that matter. UL is the second book in a row where I’ve had to postpone part of the outline to the next book. Clearly I’m overestimating the amount of story I can fit into each book, and while it’s handy that doing an ongoing series gives me the option of postponing material, the need to rework things does disrupt the process and slow me down dangerously, so I need to take more care with my outlining. The problem is, there are already a lot of threads I have in mind to work into Book 4, so I may have to do some picking and choosing.

But that’s to be sorted out later. For now, time to rest.

A few random STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS observations (Spoilers)

I decided tonight that it was time I got around to watching Star Trek Into Darkness a second time, now that it’s on Netflix streaming. There’s a lot in the movie that I like and a lot I don’t, and as is so often the case with movies these days, most of the stuff I don’t like is in the third act, the one where story logic tends to give way to the relentless Hollywood pressure for action and spectacle. There are so many movies that are excellent in the first two acts and deteriorate in the third, and this is one of them, although there’s still some good stuff mixed in. The attempt to copy The Wrath of Khan‘s radiation-room sequence, in particular, is the worst idea in the film bar none, to the point that it overshadows the rest in people’s minds and makes them remember the film as more derivative than it actually is; but once they get past the “Ship out of danger” line, they actually return the focus where it belongs, to the story of this movie and its character arcs, so from that point on it kinda works. (At least until the “KHAAAAAAANNNN!!” moment, which is even stupider here than it was in TWOK, and it was painfully stupid there.)

John Cho is kind of wasted as Sulu. He’s an amazingly good actor and should be a leading man in his own right. The whole cast is good, and a large part of what makes these movies work (when they do work, which is often enough that I can forgive the parts that don’t), but he’s a particular standout, at least in proportion to his screen time.

One part that I’m afraid doesn’t work for me that well is the musical score. Which is strange, since I usually love Michael Giacchino’s work. But I just find his Trek theme kind of ponderous and melodically awkward. I don’t like its chord progressions; they’re too minor and kind of discordant. It’s inoffensive enough when I first hear it, but then it gets stuck in my head afterward and I really, really don’t like having it there and want to drive it out with something else. It’s like a food that leaves a bad aftertaste. I don’t want to dislike it, but somehow this is one Giacchino theme that just misfires for me. Partly because it doesn’t do what he does so well, which is to emulate the sound of a classic production while still bringing his own voice to it. His Mission: Impossible scores evoke the flavor of Lalo Schifrin’s and do a good job incorporating Schifrin’s themes. His Incredibles score was a fantastic homage to John Barry’s James Bond scores. His theme to Sky High was a classic superhero motif that could’ve easily been a Superman theme. His score for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes evoked Goldsmith’s and Rosenman’s scores to the originals. But his Star Trek scores just don’t sound like Star Trek music most of the time. They have their moments; aside from the arrangement of the Courage theme in the end titles, STID quoted a very tiny snippet of Gerald Fried’s “Ritual” cue from “Amok Time” when Spock was fighting Khan in the climax, and the earlier fight with Kirk, Scotty, and Khan against the Vengeance guards had a score that did evoke the style of various TOS scores. But the main theme and most of the scoring don’t fit the style of prior Trek at all. For that matter, they don’t even sound particularly Giacchino-like to me. It’s really disappointing that the only scores I don’t like from one of my favorite modern film composers are the ones for my favorite franchise.

At the end of the credits, I noticed the American Humane Society “no animals were harmed” credit — which I assume is only included in films that featured animals. But the only animals I remember seeing in the film were an alien riding animal and fish on Nibiru, a tribble, and the sick little girl’s stuffed rabbit. Does the AHS protect imaginary animals too?

Also, Khan stated that the Enterprise‘s life support control was “behind the aft nacelle.” This is a neat trick considering that, A, the ship is symmetrical and neither nacelle is aft of the other, and B, the only thing behind either nacelle is outer space. (I’m laughing at the superior intellect!)

UNCERTAIN LOGIC: Draft is done (almost)

I haven’t posted in a while since I’ve been focused on getting Uncertain Logic done. I just wrapped up the first draft today… a day after my nominal deadline. Unfortunately I suffered a schedule setback: I decided a while back to split the process into two phases, first finishing up the A plot of the book, then going back and filling in the independent B plot. The problem is, the A plot ended up considerably longer than I’d expected, so I had to rethink the B plot and trim it down substantially. Which is okay, since I’ve planned this all along as a 2-book arc, so it’s just a matter of moving elements of it to Book 4. Which I think will actually work better, because then there’s something new to be revealed in Book 4 rather than just having it be the fallout from all that was discovered in Book 3. But the need to pause and re-plot this storyline for Book 3 threw me off schedule. Fortunately, I was able to get an extension from my editor, which kept me from stressing out too much like I did when I was pushing against the deadline on Book 2. So I’m really grateful to Margaret for that.

As it happened, I finished the B plot’s climax yesterday and then spent today on the denouement — then quickly arrived at a solution to a flaw I’d recognized in the climax of the A plot, which left a couple of the main characters a little too passive. I have to thank Marco Palmieri for inadvertently helping me realize the problem; during the “Villain’s Journey” panel at Shore Leave a few weeks ago, someone asked him his thoughts on what defined a good villain, and he said (paraphrasing), “Good villains are defined by the choices they force the heroes to make.” That reminder, that stories are about choices rather than simply events, pointed me in the right direction, not only to improve the climax of the A plot, but to decide what really needed to happen in the B plot climax as well.

One way I helped myself, meanwhile, was by periodically going over to the university campus to work. Getting out of my chair and getting some exercise and a change of scenery helps, and being away from my DSL connection means I don’t get as distracted by the Internet while I’m trying to work (although having a smartphone now has cut into that a bit). I’ve actually done it twice in the past three days. On Sunday, I decided to bike over to campus. That’s right, I’m finally getting back into cycling after letting my bike sit dormant for a couple of years, since I really need to get back into shape. This was my first big excursion, the first ride that wasn’t just over to the nearby park and a bunch of laps around the footpath. I kind of bit off more than I could chew, since I’d forgotten what an uphill climb it was to get home from the part of campus I rode to, so I mostly had to walk my bike back uphill. I was pretty sore after that. But I got a good amount of work done. I packed a lunch and went over to the main campus library, not realizing that it wouldn’t open until noon; but I sat in the shade in the outdoor study area next to the library and got a scene or two written there, then had my lunch, then went into the library and got some more done, finding my way toward the climax — though I was too tired after I got home to finish it that day.

Anyway, I got through the climax yesterday at home, but still didn’t quite have the denouement solved until this morning. But today was apparently the day that the apartment building had the railings on its entranceway stairs replaced, so that made a lot of noise outside my apartment. So I took a walk up to Panera to work over lunch and finish the B plot, then I figured out that fix for the A plot on the walk from there to the nearest campus library, where I wrote that additional scene, then paged through the whole thing and figured out chapter breaks (tentatively). Oh, and I put back in a couple of character-moment scenes that I’d pulled out for length, once I determined I’d have room for them. There are a couple more scenes I wish I could put back in, but they’re not really essential, they probably slow the pacing too much in the early chapters, and I’m pushing the maximum word count enough as it is.

So now comes the polishing, where hopefully I can trim out excesses, flesh out the bits that need it, refine the timing of events, and maybe find improvements for some tentative elements. I’m hoping to get that done by the end of the month. But I think it’s turned out reasonably well so far. Streamlining the B plot helps keep it more focused as well as cutting down on the clutter the book might otherwise have had. And it lets the A plot have the space it needs. (And since it’s a 2-book arc, any imbalance in character emphasis in this book can be complemented in the next.) More basically, I made a point of telling a story that challenged the characters more and raised the personal stakes and consequences higher than Tower of Babel did, while still keeping the astropolitical stakes high and adding new complications and new antagonists to the Rise of the Federation milieu. I think I’ve improved considerably on the previous volume, though I hope I can improve it a bit more over the next few days.

And after this, I really need to keep my momentum going if I can. I want to get Book 4 outlined as soon as possible so I can hopefully get ahead of schedule for once, as well as knowing if events from Book 4 will require me to make any changes to Book 3 in copyedits. Plus I’m hoping to come up with a new pitch or two for my next Trek project after Book 4, and there are some original projects I hope I can get around to in the months ahead.

Oh yeah… and I really have to come up with a title for Book 4 sooner or later, don’t I?

DC DVD movie reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR, SON OF BATMAN, JLA TRAPPED IN TIME (Spoilers)

Lately, since James Tucker replaced Bruce Timm as the producer of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies DVD line, the series has begun adapting storylines from the current “New 52″ comics continuity, as opposed to the classic adaptations and original stories they’d been doing before (although there are still original movies in other continuities on the upcoming slate — the next movie, for instance, is a new story in the universe of the Arkham Asylum computer games). Here are my reviews of the first two, Justice League: War (based on the introductory JL story in the New 52) and Son of Batman (based on Grant Morrison’s Damien Wayne storyline which I think began before the New 52 but was folded into it).

Justice League: War (review reposted from The TrekBBS)

I finally saw this… and I wish I hadn’t. It was pretty bad. Mostly nonstop action without a lot of characterization. It had a few nice moments, but they were outnumbered by the weak or stupid moments.

Superman, who should be the heart of the team, was barely even there as a character, just a big dumb overconfident lug who punched things and flirted with Diana. Wonder Woman herself was far worse, a caricature who claimed to be a “warrior” but was shallow, impulsive, and reckless without a trace of discipline. Come on, no “warrior” is going to casually swing her sword around and point it at people merely as a form of address. A warrior would have more respect for her weapon and its danger.

Didn’t think much of how the other characters were handled either, but the worst was probably Darkseid. He’s supposed to be a monarch, a commanding figure who rarely needs to dirty his hands with actual combat because he has so many underlings to do it for him. The threat he poses is generally more psychological, in the way he manipulates and corrupts and bends people to his will. So when he does strike physically, it has a real impact from a story point of view. But this Darkseid was a barely literate, grunting thug. They pretty much turned him into Doomsday, a threat that’s all brute force and no personality or intelligence. I wondered why they even bothered to call him Darkseid.

Some of the voices were fairly good, but they didn’t have much to work with. Even Alan Tudyk wasn’t all that much of a standout, since he was given such a shallow, one-note Superman to portray. The one real standout was Marjorie Monaghan as Wonder Woman, who stood out for how terrible she was — although I think the blame there lies more with how the character was written.

If this is going to be the DCU movies’ primary continuity from now on, I’m not optimistic about what lies ahead.

Son of Batman

This one started out problematically, with a battle scene in which mercenaries led by Deathstroke launched an attack on the League of Assassins led by Ra’s al Ghul, with tons of bloodshed. The movie is full of the most graphic violence I’ve seen in the DCU line, to the point that I’m surprised it got away with merely a PG-13 rating. And a lot of it was gratuitous and badly handled. In the climactic fight between the boy Damien Wayne and Deathstroke, Damien sustains some very serious and graphic stab wounds in his arms, yet they do nothing to impede his fighting ability afterward, at a time when he should be unable to use his arms at all and passing out from shock and blood loss. If they’re going to put in so much gore, it should at least be relevant. Otherwise it’s purely a gratuitous indulgence.

Still, there is some merit to the story, scripted by Joe R. Lansdale from a story by James Robinson based on the Grant Morrison/Andy Kubert comics, and directed by Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s Ethan Spaulding. My favorite part is the portrayal of Alfred as he meets Damien’s imperious condescension with scathing sarcasm. And there’s some decent character interaction between Batman, his son, and his surrogate son Nightwing. As for the animation, it’s kind of stiff without a lot of expressiveness to the characters, but the design work by Phil Bourassa is reasonably good.

But there is just so much that doesn’t work. For one thing, the film’s treatment of women is poor. Pretty much every female character in the film, of which there are only a few, is there to be either a wife, lover, daughter, mother, or hostage to a male character — the one exception being a member of a gaggle of Wayne Industries execs talking business with Bruce Wayne. Even Talia al Ghul, the only major female role, is there mainly as a love interest, mother, and hostage, and the times when she’s portrayed as a warrior are undermined by the fact that she’s showing off an enormous amount of cleavage in every single scene she’s in. But the creepiest part by far is when it’s pretty much stated outright that she gave Batman a roofie in order to put him in the amorous mood that led to Damien’s conception. In other words, she raped him. But because a woman did it to a man, the blatant double standard of so much fiction is entirely in force here, with Batman being pretty much okay with it and saying it wasn’t that bad. That’s just sick and wrong. And it’s so unnecessary to the story. Couldn’t they have just said that Batman had a moment of weakness that he later regretted? Or even that he actually just cared for Talia and their son’s conception was an act of love, however doomed and forbidden? Did they have to send the viewers such distorted, outdated messages about gender and consent?

And speaking of distorted messages, the ending of the movie is awful on that count. Throughout the movie, Batman is trying to teach Damien, who was raised as an assassin, that there’s a better way than killing, and of course in the climax Damien chooses not to take lethal revenge on Deathstroke. Fine, all well and good. But then Batman and Damien blithely leave the injured, immobile Deathstroke lying there in a flooding undersea base! How completely hypocritical is it to have Batman spend the movie arguing that killing is wrong and then unhesitatingly leave a wounded man to die? How is that supposed to be different? It’s a corruption of everything Batman stands for, and it ruins a story that had been going relatively well up to that point.

The casting is mixed but reasonably good. Jason O’Mara returns from JL: War as Batman, and though his voice is unusual for Batman, he gives a pretty good, nuanced performance with the emotional stuff here. Stuart Allan is reasonably good as Damien, allowing for the low expectations I’d generally have for a preteen actor. David McCallum is awesome as Alfred (a role he previously played in the Gotham Knight DVD anthology that was more or less set in the Nolan films’ universe). Sean Maher is an interesting and very effective choice for Nightwing/Dick Grayson, and his Firefly co-star Morena Baccarin (whose voice work I’ve found rather mixed in the past) is reasonably good as Talia. Giancarlo Esposito does a fairly good job in a brief role as Ra’s al Ghul, and Xander Berkeley does well enough as Langstrom. But Thomas Gibson is utterly awful as Deathstroke, giving a broad, forced, cartoon-villain performance with no nuance or sincerity. It does almost as much to undermine the story as the other problems I’ve mentioned.

It’s becoming increasingly evident to me that these movies are being targeted to an audience that no longer includes me. That seems to be the direction DC’s going in general these days; what I’ve glimpsed of the New 52 comics is just as self-consciously grimdark and gory, and Warner Bros. seems committed to making DC-based movies that are all as dark and somber as they can be. I’ve seen DC’s current attitude compared to that of a teenager self-consciously acting all adult and serious in an effort to prove their maturity, which is an intrinsically juvenile view of maturity. Those who are really mature aren’t afraid to have fun and be a little childish sometimes. Which is why I’m so much looking forward to the CW’s The Flash series, since — even though it spins off from the somber and Nolanesque Arrow — it looks like it’s going to be embracing a much lighter, more upbeat tone, something that we rarely see being done with DC characters anymore.

Which reminds me, I should also talk about the other DC animated movie I’ve recently seen, the younger-skewing JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time. This was originally a Target exclusive (now more widely available, including on Netflix) that was released with little fanfare compared to the increasingly kid-unfriendly DC Universe line, but in a lot of ways it’s a more satisfying adventure — a bit simple, but willing to have fun with its idea and its characters. It’s directed by Giancarlo Volpe of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and it’s basically an updated, more sophisticated Super Friends type of story, with the Justice League fighting the Legion of Doom, and both operating out of their Super Friends-style headquarters (including the Hall of Justice based on my favorite Art Deco building, Cincinnati’s Union Terminal). When Lex Luthor (Fred Tatasciore) is frozen in Arctic ice and apparently killed, he’s then thawed out a thousand years later and uses time travel to go back and erase Superman and the League from existence, and the only people who can stop him are a pair of wannabe Legion of Super Heroes members, Karate Kid (Avatar‘s Dante Basco) and Dawnstar (Laura Bailey), who have to learn to have faith in their abilities and correct their mistakes that led to the situation in the first place. The temporal physics make no sense whatsoever, but then, they rarely do in any time-travel story. The danger in the climax is also very unclear and arbitrary. Sure, it’s a little simple, but it doesn’t have the disturbing elements or gratuitous excesses of the so-called “adult-oriented” movies.

Peter Jessop (the Vision from The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) is a decent but unremarkable Superman. Diedrich Bader reprises Batman from Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and the endlessly versatile Grey DeLisle Griffin (Avatar‘s Azula) does an effective Wonder Woman (her debut in the role, though she’s played Wonder Girl in the Super Best Friends Forever shorts). Kevin Michael Richardson reprises Black Manta from TB&TB as well as playing Solomon Grundy, and Jason Spisak, Young Justice‘s Kid Flash/Wally West, plays the Flash (which may or may not be a reprise, but it seems more like Wally in the suit than Barry Allen). Volpe brings another A:TLA veteran, Jack DeSena, in to play Robin, though it’s an unusual portrayal, as if Robin is still new and trying to prove himself to Batman. Corey Burton (Clone Wars‘ Count Dooku, among many other roles) plays the Time Trapper, the time-manipulating entity that’s basically the genie in the lamp for Luthor — until he gets out of Luthor’s control.

As for the decision to focus on Dawnstar and Karate Kid, I can’t blame the filmmakers for wanting to focus on just about the only two LSH characters who aren’t white — after all, the kids watching this movie are sure to be a diverse group and they all deserve inclusion — but I’d be happier if they weren’t both such blatant stereotypes in conception, the Asian guy defined by knowing martial arts and the Native American defined by tracking abilities and psionic “arrows.” Unfortunately that’s the problem with using decades-old characters, no matter how much the current storytellers try to downplay the stereotypes. (Although apparently the psi arrows were an invention of the movie, so maybe they weren’t downplaying the stereotypes as much as I thought. She was also given some kind of shamanistic spiritual powers.)

So pretty much all we have to choose from in DC animation these days are the really adult-skewing, grim and violent and female-unfriendly stuff and the kid-skewing, light and silly stuff. Anything that aspires to the middle ground between those, like Young Justice or Beware the Batman, has a short lifespan because WB and Cartoon Network don’t perceive a market for it anymore. And that’s a shame, because it was in that middle ground that Batman: TAS and the DC Animated Universe were created and thrived, setting the stage for the animation boom that followed. But even though the kid stuff isn’t entirely satisfying to me, I know I found Trapped in Time more watchable than the PG-13 movies.

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