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Announcing the ONLY SUPERHUMAN audiobook!

September 26, 2012 2 comments

Only Superhuman by Christopher L. BennettI’m finally able to announce that GraphicAudio, a company that produces fully dramatized audiobook adaptations of novels, is doing an audio edition of Only Superhuman. As announced on their site, it’s scheduled for release in February 2013. As I understand it, this will be a full-cast audio drama complete with music and sound effects, more like old-time radio dramas than your typical audiobook. I’ve listened to some of the samples they have at their site, and they sound good. They appear to have their own repertory company of performers to handle the voices.

To be honest, having somewhat inherited the voice — and the hamminess — of my radio-announcer father, I’ve always kind of hoped I’d get to narrate my own audiobook. I’ve quite enjoyed it when I’ve gotten to do dramatic readings from my work at the Shore Leave convention. But it’s worth passing that up to get to hear the story fully realized in this way.

I’ll be at Books by the Banks, October 20

Next month is shaping up to be busy for me, as we close in on the release date for Only Superhuman. On October 20, the weekend after New York Comic-Con, I’ll be a guest at the Books by the Banks festival back here in Cincinnati, at the Duke Energy Convention Center downtown. It runs from 10 AM to 4 PM. I’ll be there to promote and sell Only Superhuman, of course, but I’m hoping I’ll have some of my Star Trek books available for sale too. Click the link above for details on the festival.

Thoughts on Godzilla: The Millennium Era (Part 1)

September 19, 2012 7 comments

After my incomplete overviews of the Shōwa and Heisei continuities of the Godzilla franchise, it’s time to move on to the Millennium Era, the most recent incarnation and the first I’ll be able to review in full. This is also the first time Toho returned to Godzilla after the deaths of the franchise’s creator/producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and chief composer Akira Ifukube.

From what I read (mainly at this old fansite, which admittedly has a fair amount of errors and subjectivity), the Heisei Era was ended to make way for the American remake of Godzilla in 1998, which was directed by Roland Emmerich and written by Dean Devlin and Emmerich, the team beyond Stargate and Independence Day. The expectation was that TriStar Pictures would do a trilogy and that Toho wouldn’t bring back the Big G until 2004, the half-century anniversary. But the Emmerich film flopped and earned the hatred of the Godzilla fan community. I actually think it’s a decent monster movie if you treat it as its own separate entity and don’t compare it to Godzilla. But as an attempt to create an American version of the Godzilla franchise, it failed (although it spawned an animated series that came much closer to the spirit of Godzilla), so Toho quickly got back in the game. This time, so I gather, Toho decided to try out several alternate takes on Godzilla before deciding which one to carry forward as a continuing series. All would count as sequels to the 1954 original, but otherwise would be in alternate realities, interpreting the daikaiju and his history in different ways.

The first alternate reality we get is 1999’s Godzilla 2000: Millennium. And that’s its actual Japanese title (Gojira Nisen: Mireniamu), unlike the 1984 The Return of Godzilla which got titled Godzilla 1985 when it came to America a year later. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel that different from what came before, perhaps because so many of its makers were Heisei-series veterans. On the plus side, it’s directed by Takao Okawara, who directed the three best Heisei films (Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth, G. vs. Mechagodzilla II, and G. vs. Destoroyah). It’s also produced by Shogo Tomiyama, who co-produced all but the first Heisei film alongside Tanaka. On the writing side, though, it teams the screenwriter of the superlative Mechagodzilla II with the co-writer of the abysmal Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla.

In this universe, Godzilla has been a fact of life for an unspecified amount of time — at least in the English dub I was able to get. In theory, all the films count the ’54 original as canon, but if anything, he seems here like a more recent phenomenon, since there are things the characters are only now discovering about him. Also, he’s trashing all of Japan’s energy sources; it seems they’re making the same assumption as The Return of Godzilla that the big G feeds on nuclear power or other forms of high energy. This Godzilla is more reptilian than his predecessors, with green skin instead of gray, an iguana-like head, a thicker neck, and ridiculously oversized back spines.

Unlike the UN-operated G-Force of the Heisei films, here there are two rival Japanese organizations hunting Godzilla. One is the Crisis Control Intelligence Agency (CCI), run by the ruthless Katagiri, who’s determined to kill Godzilla. The other is the civilian Godzilla Prediction Network, perhaps the most interesting idea in the film, because it operates like the stormchasers who track tornadoes in the US. It’s an interesting analogy, treating Godzilla as a force of nature that can’t be stopped but only tracked and reported on so the public can try to avoid it. Shades of Godzilla Raids Again, the second Shōwa film.  The GPN is run by Shinoda, who argues (like Dr. Yamane in the original) that Godzilla needs to be kept alive and studied for scientific benefit, and who has a longstanding rivalry with Katagiri based on this philosophical divide.

The CCI also gets interested in a long-submerged meteorite for no apparent reason, and brings it to the surface. Once exposed to light, it revives and turns out to be an alien spaceship, which takes off and attacks Godzilla in the middle of a standoff with the CCI and the military. The saucer hacks the computer of our heroine, reporter Yuki, for her information on Godzilla. (Despite the title, the access dates in her computer log all say 1999.) Later, Shinoda analyzes a Godzilla cell sample and, with help from CCI scientists, discovers the “Organizer G-1” cells (called Regenerator G-1 in the dub) that allow Godzilla to heal and regenerate so rapidly. Again echoing Yamane’s hopes, Shinoda realizes that this discovery could revolutionize medicine. It turns out the saucer occupants, the Millennians, want to obtain those cells so they can adapt to our atmosphere and take over. After the CCI and GPN have unsuccessful run-ins with the saucer, Godzilla throws down with it in the heart of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, and the Millennians vampirically acquire his Organizer cells, causing them to merge and transform into a monster known as Orga for the final battle.

The film has pretty good production values for its era, incorporating a CGI Godzilla in some shots to supplement the rubber-suit one in most of the film, although the CGI looks relatively crude by today’s standards. The best FX shots were the ones that smoothly matchmoved Godzilla into live-action plates with a moving camera at ground level, doing a good job of selling the idea that he was really there in the background. But attempts to do the same in helicopter shots in daylight overreach and don’t succeed. Godzilla’s roars still incorporate his classic bellow, but with more audio layers and variations added. The music is mostly by the same guy who scored SpaceGodzilla, but he does a better job here, and there’s still some use of Ifukube’s themes in the third act.

Even the English dub isn’t bad; TriStar made a point of getting Asian-American actors, and the dubbing cast is headlined by Francois Chau (the guy from the Dharma Initiative films on Lost) as Shinoda. There’s also a supporting role in the dub for Star Trek‘s John Cho, which means that both Sulu actors have dubbed Godzilla movies early in their careers, since George Takei was in the dubbing cast for Godzilla Raids Again.

All in all, though, Millennium is a bit odd for a new beginning to the franchise. It feels like a routine installment of an ongoing series, yet the history behind it is too new and cursorily developed for me to get really invested in it. It’s too half-hearted, neither close enough to what came before to feel grounded nor different enough to feel that the changes served a purpose. It’s a weak and forgettable start to the alternate-realities era.

Fortunately, the next film, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus: G Extermination Strategy, makes better use of the alternate-timeline idea, despite having the same writers and producer as the previous film (but a different director, Masaaki Tezuka). The film cleverly extrapolates how Godzilla’s existence would have changed Japan’s history. Usually G-movies just show a world that’s basically ours but with daikaiju and futuristic technology tacked on; major cities are periodically destroyed, but the economic and social consequences of that are never felt. Here, at least in the prologue, there’s an attempt to approach that more thoughtfully. It opens with a newsreel recapping the original film, with new effects shots recreating Godzilla’s 1954 attack, and with Ifukube’s Godzilla theme cleverly used as a newsreel soundtrack. In this reality, the destruction of Tokyo short-circuited Japan’s postwar economic boom and forced the relocation of the capital to Osaka (awkwardly represented by showing the iconic Diet Building, seat of the Japanese government and a familiar Tokyo landmark in daikaiju films, relocated next to Osaka Castle). When Godzilla attacked the first nuclear power plant in 1966 (for he feeds on nuclear energy in this reality too), Japan outlawed nuclear power and spent the rest of the 20th century developing clean energy, culminating in the introduction of something called “plasma energy” in Osaka in 1996. When that draws another Godzilla attack, our main character, a Self-Defense Force soldier named Kiriko Tsujimori, refuses to retreat when ordered, leading to the death of her commander. But she blames Godzilla rather than herself and becomes even more driven to destroy him.

By the present day, the Japan of this timeline is not too dissimilar to our own, but apparently the clean-energy research has led to a somewhat more advanced technology in some ways.  Tsujimori is a major in the Self-Defense Force’s dedicated anti-Godzilla unit, which, due to somebody’s reckless use of a translation dictionary, is called the G-Graspers. (In the original, not the dub. It’s written out in English in their logo and everything.) They’ve devised a weapon that will fire a micro-black hole, sucking Godzilla inside and trapping him forever. It’s given the poetic English name Dimension Tide, which more than makes up for “G-Graspers.” (The device’s inventor is played by the actress who was the female lead in Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster.) However, testing it opens a wormhole that either mutates an Earth insect or lets one through from another dimension (this isn’t made clear), and its egg is found by a kid who takes it to his home in Shibuya, the Times Square-like shopping district of Tokyo (which I recognized by sight from its depiction in the brilliant anime series Serial Experiments Lain), where it soon hatches into a swarm of large dragonfly-like creatures, Meganula (named for some larval critters from the 1956 Rodan), that begin killing innocent bystanders in the goriest scenes I’ve ever seen in a kaiju movie. (Most of the films I’ve seen since the original have avoided showing human death outright. G. vs. Destoroyah had a fairly violent sequence of the Destroyers battling the army, but the implicit death shots were stylized and sanitized.) Yet instead of blaming the kid, Tsujimori figures it’s the fault of her own G-Graspers and their black-hole weapon.

Nonetheless, the G-Graspers ignore this risk and launch the Dimension Tide into space on a satellite. But they need a way to track and target Godzilla. When Tsujimori goes out to sea to investigate a Godzilla sighting — and a Meganula corpse that Godzilla presumably dealt with offscreen — her raft is capsized by the big G himself and she’s left swimming in the ocean right next to the deadliest monster on Earth. So what does she do? She swims right over to Godzilla. And. Climbs. On. His. Freaking. Back! This is the single most awesome thing anyone has ever done. “Oh, I used Godzilla as a surfboard today, what did you do?” Although she’s not going Ahab; she takes the opportunity to fire a tracking device into Godzilla’s hide.

Anyway, they try black-holing G from space once he makes landfall, but the Meganula swarm him and the shot misses. The big bugs feed on his nuclear energy and inject it into their queen, underwater in what’s now a flooded Shibuya, and the queen emerges as the dragonfly daikaiju Megaguirus. (Their resident paleontologist knows all sorts of things about this extinct Carboniferous species’ life cycle and behavior that he’d be unlikely to have any way of knowing — a tradition of Toho paleontologists going all the way back to Godzilla Raids Again.) Godzilla’s on his way to Tokyo because the obligatory corrupt government official has been secretly conducting plasma energy research in the city (why there?), and Megaguirus cleans his clock in the port of Odaiba, until Godzilla rallies and shows what a cunning fighter he can be. It’s really a pretty impressive, cleverly choreographed, and strikingly vicious climactic battle, although there are some odd moments of jerky slow motion (which mostly seems to represent Megaguirus’s POV, but is used in one key moment that clearly isn’t that). Then it’s up to Tsujimori to risk herself to fly her jet into the rampaging Godzilla so the Dimension Tide — which is falling out of orbit for no clear reason yet is still directly over Tokyo and able to aim itself while burning to a crisp — can lock onto her signal. I won’t spoil how it ends, but there’s a post-credits epilogue that rather weakly leaves the door open for sequels to this continuity.

It’s unclear how faithful this film is to the ending of the original film. The opening newsreel implies that Godzilla simply wandered off after wrecking Tokyo, as if the Oxygen Destroyer was never used. But later, the Dimension Tide’s inventor says that this time they must be certain there’s nothing left of Godzilla and they can’t make the same mistake again. That might be implying that the original did end as we saw, but the O.D. didn’t destroy Godzilla as completely as was believed.

While this wasn’t a perfect film, it was certainly much stronger than its predecessor, and one of the most interesting kaiju films I’ve seen. I could’ve done without the little kid, who’s responsible for massive loss of life and property but completely gets away with it, and whose only real role is to bring the egg to Shibuya, something which could’ve been arranged another way. But there’s a lot else in the film’s favor. Misato Tanaka is impressive as Tsujimori, a striking, distinctive-featured actress playing a strong, stoic character, very different from the female leads in prior kaiju films. The Godzilla costume seems better, a little closer to its Heisei design, or maybe I’m just getting used to it. The music, by Michiru Ohshima, is the most impressive non-Ifukube score I’ve heard in one of these. While not imitating Ifukube, Ohshima conveys a similar flavor, a mix of ominous, driving daikaiju themes and lively martial passages for the military and their gizmos, and uses a similar approach to Ifukube’s of having a number of cues that were repeated several times throughout the film and underlaid the action without really following it.

Next is one of the best-regarded Godzilla movies, 2001’s Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, or as it’s widely known, GMK. Unlike the previous two universes, this film follows the precedent of The Return of Godzilla, depicting a near-future Japan that hasn’t seen any daikaiju attacks in the half-century since Godzilla’s original rampage, and that as a result is fairly ignorant of kaiju, with many even disbelieving that Godzilla was real. (Which may seem implausible given how completely he destroyed Tokyo, but consider how many people in real life disbelieve in the Holocaust or the Moon landing.) In fact, so we’re told at the beginning, there was a giant monster that attacked New York several years before and was reputed to be Godzilla, but this was unconfirmed. That’s right, folks — in GMK’s continuity, the only prior canonical films are the 1954 Gojira… and the 1998 American Godzilla! Which kind of makes sense, since in the ’98 movie, various Japanese characters knew the name “Gojira” and associated it with giant reptilian monsters, and one has to wonder why that would be. It makes perfect sense if the Emmerich film took place in the GMK universe, where the original Godzilla has become a legend and not many people either believe he existed or know what he looked like. People mistaking other kaiju for Godzilla is in fact something of a running gag in this film. Not to worry, though; there’s only one passing reference to the ’98 film, basically just an in-joke for the Japanese audience.

GMK takes an odd tack for a kaiju film, initially having almost a slasher-film vibe as gangs of teen delinquents vandalize small Shintoist icons whose destruction unleashes a couple of kaiju who kill them in revenge for their desecration, or so it seems to me. The kaiju, glimpsed only briefly at first, are Baragon (a Shōwa-era monster introduced in Frankenstein Conquers the World and seen briefly in Destroy All Monsters) and a larval Mothra. Our lead character Yuri Tachibana (Chiiharu Niiyama), a plucky, pretty, auburn-haired reporter for an online tabloid-news video site, encounters an old man who tells her the kaiju are the Yamato Monsters — Yamato being an ancient term for Japan that’s used to refer to the ethnic or national identity of the Japanese people. The Yamato Monsters, Baragon, Mothra, and Ghidorah, are the guardians of the homeland — which, unfortunately for the people who get in their way, means the physical land itself, not its current occupants. The old man says they’re awakening now because the real Godzilla is returning and they seek to protect the homeland from his wrath. In this version, Godzilla is more blatantly supernatural than in the past; while still described as an ancient living beast that’s survived for eons, he has also absorbed the souls of everyone killed by the Japanese military in WWII (Yuri distinctly says “Amerikajin,” Americans, at one point in the discussion, though the English subtitles don’t acknowledge this). That means Godzilla is wrathful, intent on revenge against a Japanese people who have allowed themselves to forget the crimes of their nation’s past. The film is something of an anti-war statement by its director Shūsuke Kaneko.

In fact, I daresay that the characters’ disbelief or complacency toward Godzilla symbolizes their cavalier attitude toward the wartime past that Godzilla embodies here. There’s also a metatextual quality, as if critiquing the past indulgences of the franchise itself, for many characters talk about Godzilla as a joke (as if channeling the sensibilities of the kid-oriented Shōwa films) or show sympathy for him as a poor innocent animal (echoing Miki’s sentiments in the later Heisei films) — only to be promptly struck down by the cruel reality of Godzilla. Also, apparently the Japanese military covered up the use of the Oxygen Destroyer and took the credit for killing Godzilla themselves, so they wouldn’t look bad. Perhaps this gave the characters a false sense of security about how dangerous Godzilla really was. (And perhaps it’s why people don’t know what Godzilla looked like; the SDF may have confiscated the film from the Tokyo attack because it showed how ineffectual they were.) This also plays into Kaneko’s theme of modern Japan choosing to obscure and forget its imperialist past.

There are also some interesting resonances with scenes from the original; when Godzilla first comes onto land in the same area where he originally made landfall, the scene parallels his attack on Otoshima in the original film, in that we focus on the people inside the building being trampled and barely see Godzilla at all. There’s also a later shot of his head appearing over a hilltop that parallels his first major appearance in the original. And a pivotal sequence of Yuri bravely reporting on Godzilla’s climactic attack from Yokohama Bay Bridge, and almost dying when the bridge is trashed, reminded me of the scene in the original of the brave reporters on Tokyo Tower doing their duty to the bitter end.

But the most powerful way in which GMK evokes the original is that it confronts the death and human devastation caused by Godzilla, and the other daikaiju more directly than any kaiju film I’ve seen since the original. A lot of people die on-camera, and there’s attention given to their terror during the attacks, the grief of the survivors, and the like. Although the impact isn’t quite as potent as it was in the original. Perhaps these filmmakers, half a century removed from the era of the original, hadn’t had the same firsthand experience with the horrors of war and disaster, so their depictions of death and suffering are a bit less heartfelt, a bit more sensational — and with a bit too much comic relief tossed in to spoil the mood.

Anyway, Godzilla takes out Baragon pretty early, so when he reaches Yokohama, only Mothra (looking more realistic than in the past thanks to occasionally being CGI) and Ghidorah (finally awakened by the old man) are there to confront him. Ghidorah is briefly linked in dialogue with an eight-headed dragon from Japanese mythology, but it’s said he was awakened too young; perhaps that explains why he has only three heads. (And this is a hybrid version; Ghidorah’s heads here were modeled after the title kaiju from the ’50s film Varan the Destroyer, since Kaneko and the creature designer had originally wanted to use Varan. Maybe the change is fitting, since it’s the first time Ghidorah’s ever been a good guy.) Godzilla injures Ghidorah and incinerates Mothra, but Mothra pulls an Obi-Wan: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” Mothra’s sparkly remains surround the fallen Ghidorah and revive him as the sparkly-auraed, occasionally CGI King Ghidorah, who knocks Godzilla into Yokohama Bay where the battle reaches its climax — and it’s Yuri’s father, Admiral Tachibana, who plays a pivotal role in resolving the battle and the film.

Story-wise, this is one of the strongest Godzilla films I’ve seen, and certainly the darkest and most allegorical since the original. More care is put into the lead characters than usual for the franchise. Ms. Niiyama is effective as Yuri, and Ryūdō Uzaki is excellent as Admiral Tachibana, giving a very likeable and nuanced performance as a soft-spoken, thoughtful, yet strong authority figure, both as an admiral and a father. The music, by Kō Otani, is very different for a Godzilla film, synth-based and more modern, but quite memorable and in a similar spirit to Ifukube’s, with a John Barry-esque, minor-key main theme for Godzilla over a lumbering ostinato, and with the military getting its own more optimistic, marchlike motif. The only actual Ifukube music used here is a medley of motifs from the original film over the end titles.

The big disappointment here is the Godzilla suit itself, the worst one I’ve seen in the post-Shōwa films. They’ve given him a longer neck and more crocodylian head, which is often awkwardly puppeteered and looks almost as fake as the puppet-head closeups from the original film. The body is oddly chubby and pear-shaped, almost reminding me of Earl Sinclair from the old Dinosaurs sitcom, and the legs’ connection to the body is far from seamless. They used a different performer than usual, and the new guy doesn’t move as well in the suit, tending to flail his arms too much. The roar is built upon the original sound effect, but modifies it too much to work really well. The part that works best is the effect for Godzilla’s atomic breath/ray, which is actinic blue and has kind of a “wave motion gun” buildup effect, drawing in a halo of light before expelling the blast. Also, the warmup glow of his spines now has an electric buzzing sound effect added; I’m not sure that works as well. The rest of the special effects are inconsistent; the creature FX are mediocre, but the CGI is getting better.

Well, I’m only halfway through the Millennium Era, but there’s been so much to cover with the distinct histories and all that I’ll need to split this overview into at least two posts. To be continued…

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Checkmate!

September 16, 2012 2 comments

Lately I’ve been trying the occasional game of chess against the computer at a website I found at Chess.com, but I’m badly out of practice at the game, so it’s been frustrating — the lowest skill setting poses no challenge at all, but the next one up — called “Easy” — has been embarrassingly unbeatable. But I just managed to make some lucky moves or something, and managed not only to win a game at last, but to win it in 13 moves without losing a single piece — and without taking anything but one pawn! The whole thing was just maneuvering pieces around to threaten or hem in the opposing (black) king and to counter potentially threatening moves by black, until finally I had the king backed into a corner and just needed to figure out the right way to finish it off.

Okay, admittedly, I undid a couple of moves here and there when I realized I hadn’t made the best choice. Since I was playing a computer, I could do that without penalty. But even so, it’s the first time I’ve managed to remember some of what little I used to know about chess strategy, so I’ll take it. I think what made the difference is that I pulled back from the aggressive, capture-what-you-can playing style I’ve been using and focused more on strategy and positioning my pieces to threaten the king. Usually I try to wear down the opponent’s forces so I’ll have a clearer shot at the king, but generally end up sacrificing too many of my own in the process. Focusing more on the ultimate goal helped a lot, and there’s a lesson there.

Here’s the whole game in the site’s chess notation, in the format (white move, black move):

  1. e3, d5
  2. Bb5+, c6
  3. Qe2, Kd7
  4. Nc3, Kd6
  5. e4, Bd7
  6. e5+, Ke6
  7. Nh3, f6
  8. Nf4+, Kf5
  9. d4, Na6
  10. Bd3+, Kg5
  11. h4+, Kh6
  12. Ne6+, g5
  13. hxg5#

So that last move, the only capture in the game, was just a pawn taking another pawn… yet by so doing, that pawn put the black king in checkmate along with my king’s rook, and with the black king’s paths of retreat blocked by my queen, king’s bishop, and king’s knight. And of my sixteen pieces, I only moved seven: three pawns, both knights, the queen, and the king’s bishop. Black also moved only seven pieces: four pawns, the queen’s knight and bishop, and the king. But fully half of black’s twelve moves were of its king, and the last 2/3 of those were to get out of check — and I checked it with a pawn three different times! The triumph of the little guy! Also I only moved my queen once, just sort of using its position as an anchor point for the formation I assembled to keep the black king on the run.

Admittedly, the whole thing was mostly luck, but still, that’s one heck of a game — to lose no pieces and to win by taking only a single pawn. I doubt I’ll manage the like of that again even if I manage to improve my chess skills to the point that I really know what I’m doing.

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My (very positive) review of JOHN CARTER

September 9, 2012 9 comments

I never got around to seeing Andrew Stanton’s John Carter in theaters because of the lukewarm reviews, but I finally picked it up on DVD at the library. A lot of us know the story of what happened with this film — it fell prey to a regime change at Disney, the new regime had no interest in it, it got almost no marketing, the title was too vague and unrevealing, etc. And the reviews said the movie was too confusing or cluttered or what-have-you.

I agree, the title sucks. This is a grand adventure story set on a fantasy version of Mars. This is an adaptation of a work of classic adventure fiction that was a major inspiration for Flash Gordon, Superman, Star Wars, and a wealth of modern adventure fiction. And yet if you don’t recognize the name John Carter, the film’s title tells you absolutely none of that. It would’ve been so much better to call it A Princess of Mars, or Under the Moons of Mars, or Warlord of Mars. Heck, even John Carter, Warlord would’ve helped. (The rumors were that Disney didn’t want a Mars-related title because of a recent failed Mars-titled movie, but apparently Stanton shied away from it because Carter didn’t become John Carter of Mars until the end of the movie. Nice idea, works fine for the initiated, but for everyone else it’s a terrible title.)

And I agree, the opening is poorly handled. The film has two prologues too many. The opening scene of the battle on Mars is too confusing, since we don’t know who these characters are or what’s at stake; and more importantly, it reveals too much at the start, and deprives the audience of the chance to discover Mars along with Carter (although I admit today’s ludicrously impatient filmgoing audiences might not be inclined to sit around for the slow-burn buildup). And we didn’t need to see Carter eluding his tail and sending the telegram to Edgar Rice Burroughs; that was just padding at this point and would’ve worked better at the end if it had been needed at all, which it probably wasn’t. The film would’ve done better to start with Burroughs’s arrival — which would’ve had the added advantage of reflecting the structure of the first book, the foreword with Burroughs explaining to the reader how he came into possession of the manuscript detailing Carter’s adventures — starting us out from Burroughs’s POV before we move to Carter’s.

But once you get past the problems with the opening scenes, the film starts to improve considerably. Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E, shows some excellent comic timing and sense of character in the sequence where Carter repeatedly attacks the cavalrymen who are trying to recruit him and repeatedly gets beaten down by them. And once the film does get to Mars . . . well, I don’t want to go into specifics, or I’d be here all day. In short, the Mars portions of this film are an extraordinary work of filmmaking, a masterwork of design, worldbuilding, and cinematography, with a mostly wonderful cast bringing out the best in the material. Stanton and his team really do an amazing job creating the world of Barsoom — its architecture, its costuming, the implied details of culture and history. It really feels like this is a whole world that’s been there all along and we’re just visiting and getting these glimpses of all this deep, intricate background that underlies it all. And despite being largely a computer-generated film with CGI aliens and virtual sets, it has the feel of a classic Hollywood historical epic. Michael Giacchino’s memorable score evokes the flavor of Lawrence of Arabia as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it fits the movie very well.

The CGI itself is extraordinarily well-done. Of course it’s quite photorealistic, as one would expect from the technology today, and of course the character animation of the 10-foot-tall, four-armed, tusked Tharks is superbly handled, as you’d expect from a Pixar director. But what struck me was the discipline Stanton exercised in shooting this virtual world. Too often, filmmakers using CGI do all these impossible, swooping camera moves just to show off “Ohh, look how CGI we are and what a big impressive virtual environment we built and how easy it is to go zooming around all over the place,” and it just divorces you from any sense of reality and makes it look like a fakey CGI environment. But Stanton builds these huge, amazing virtual sets and landscapes and then photographs them as if they were live action, with the camera constrained by physical and practical limits. And that camera discipline gives it all a very realistic, grounded flavor which does a lot to sell the fantasy. There are so many filmmakers today who could learn from that.

But what about the story, the characters, the actors? Well, I’ll grant that the story is pretty complicated, even a bit cluttered, with so much going on. You have Carter learning about Barsoom, meeting the key characters like Tars Tarkas and Dejah Thoris, getting embroiled in the multilevel rivalries between the Tharks and Red Martians, between Barsoom and Zodanga, between all of them and the super-advanced Matai Shang (Mark Strong) who’s manipulating everything behind the scenes. But in its way, that fits into that overall sense of coming into a well-established world and having to deal with its complexities. In some ways the manipulations of Shang and his Thern race seem like a complication that could’ve been left out, but they do serve to explain how Carter got to Barsoom in the first place — I don’t think today’s audiences could’ve accepted that he just wished himself there — and they set up a mythology arc that could’ve been effective at tying a whole trilogy together if the film had done well enough to get sequels — which I really wish it could. Also, the visualization of the Therns’ technology was intriguingly novel and imaginative.

I also didn’t find Carter to be the most likeable protagonist, and though Taylor Kitsch was perfectly adequate in the role, he wasn’t exactly compelling. Still, Stanton’s writing made the character sympathetic where Kitsch fell short, and there was a brilliant bit of direction and editing when Carter is in the middle of a ferocious battle (the kind that, according to Stanton, happened every other chapter in the books, but that are kept to only a few in a film that’s surprisingly character-driven) and the scene intercuts with flashbacks of Carter burying his wife and child. Not only are the transitions between his movements in the two times very deftly handled, but it’s effective at countering the cinematic tendency to treat battle as something fun or glamorous. Carter is fighting for his life, using his superstrength in Martian gravity to decimate a horde of primitives, yet his thoughts are on the pain of loss, the devastating consequences of death. Okay, granted, the same doesn’t go for the later battle scenes, which get quite gory (albeit with PG-13-appropriate blue alien blood), but it was nice to have that one time.

And I’ve been saving my praise for just about the best thing in this movie, Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. She is simply magnificent. She’s playing much the same sort of character as Princess Leia (naturally, given how Burroughs influenced Lucas) — a princess and administrator who’s an impassioned rebel leader and a strong, capable warrior who’s unimpressed by an aspiring male rescuer and quickly proves herself at least his equal in a fight, yet also has a deeply loving and compassionate side that only adds to her strength — and she sells it even better than Carrie Fisher did. She makes Dejah a deeply impressive figure, wise, powerful, commanding, and beautiful, and with a great voice too. It’s easy to understand why the bitter, reserved Carter would lose his heart to her and why armies would follow her. Dejah is an iconic figure in SF literature, and getting her right was a tall order — and Collins met every expectation and then some (except for, well, the customary nudism of Burroughs’s Barsoomians; I wouldn’t have minded a tad more authenticity there).

It’s a shame this movie suffered from the weak title, poor marketing, and flawed opening, because for the most part this is a superb bit of filmmaking that deserves to be remembered as a classic. I think in time it will be, as more people discover it on video. But it’s a real shame we’re unlikely to get sequels.

Revision quest

September 5, 2012 1 comment

I mentioned before that at Shore Leave, I sat in on a writers’ workshop panel in which some friends and colleagues of mine spelled out some basics about story structure that helped me recognize some structural flaws in the spec novel I’ve been working on for a while now. So I’ve spent the past couple of weeks revising the novel to address those and other flaws.

One thing I did was something I’ve been debating whether I wanted to do, which is to add a new prologue to give the book a more intense opening. My opening had been a passage of backstory exposition that I thought I’d found a clever and intriguing way to do, but I realized that just being clever didn’t make it any less of an infodump, and I was still “walking to the plot” rather than getting right into the meat of things. I needed to open the novel with less backstory and more of what was happening in the immediate, urgent present. So I added the prologue to open with a bang, then trimmed down that expository material and interspersed it more with the here-and-now stuff in a way that adds more suspense and mystery. (I may have been influenced by the book I was reading at the time, Iain M. Banks’s Culture novel Surface Detail; there are a lot of chapters there that jump back and forth between two concurrent scenes.) I also realized that the part with the characters talking about what might be about to happen goes on too long before it actually starts to happen; I meant it to build suspense, but it was too long, dry, and rambling. So I tightened and restructured that as well. I also realized I could greatly improve the big, shocking revelation in the first chapter if I cut out the part (from the original story this is expanded/reworked from, “Aggravated Vehicular Genocide”) where the protagonists are told about it, express skepticism, and then have it shown to them as proof. It worked far better if they were just shown it with no prior warning. Basically, I reworked the whole first chapter so that it gets to the good stuff earlier.

I also found ways to make the lead character stronger and more effective; I’d been concerned that I was telling what an impressive leader he was more than I was showing it. The problem was, of the two main characters, the one I agreed with less somehow ended up with more really cool, compelling, likeable moments. Which was fine for her; I wanted her to be sympathetic and engaging even though I thought she was wrong. But somehow I didn’t quite manage to make the other lead equally engaging, perhaps because I identified with him more and took him more for granted. This time through, I put more effort into his character, cut out some bits that weakened him in the original story and gave him more of an opportunity to do something really impressive and heroic, and I think I’ve achieved the balance I wanted.

The other main structural problem I had was that one character who became a major player in the third act (plus another who had a moderately important role to play toward the end) didn’t get introduced until the third act, and that was one of the no-nos mentioned in the Shore Leave workshop. The problem, I’d thought, was that introducing this major player too early would be a spoiler for a pretty important secret that the characters needed to uncover another way. But I figured out a way that I could introduce this character earlier and actually make him the vehicle for revealing part of the secret, without giving away the bigger part that a different character had to reveal. I mentioned this problem back in February, when I’d decided that an encyclopedic infodump passage might be the right way to convey the information after all, but at the time I said I wasn’t entirely sure it worked and maybe would think of a better way later. Well, I did. It’s not only a smoother way to give the exposition, but it lets me give this character more to do earlier on — and if you can find a way for two of your problems to solve each other, that’s always good. I was able to seed the other, more secondary character earlier too, but she was a small enough role that it was easier to do.

Speaking of small roles… this book revolves around a ship with a crew of 48 humans, small enough that I was able to come up with names and jobs for every one of them. In the first draft, I made sure to mention every crewmember by name at least once, on the assumption that I’d end up making some use of most of them and didn’t want to leave readers wondering, “Hey, he mentioned 45, where are the other 3?” (or whatever). Plus I didn’t want to artificially focus on a fraction of the crew and ignore the rest; I wanted to give a sense of the full community. Yet in the revision process, I realized that I’d used fewer characters than I’d expected, and there were a lot of names being mentioned that never turned out to be significant. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to eliminate character references unless I could trim enough that it would make a meaningful difference. So I used the search function to find how many times I referenced the minor characters, and found that there were quite a few who were only mentioned 1, 2, or 3 times. By cutting some references and consolidating others, I was able to cut it to the point that just over 2/3 of the crew got mentioned by name — enough to give a good sense of the larger group without inundating the readers with names they don’t need to know. Plus, if I should ever get to do a sequel, I have room to introduce new characters as needed without being locked down. Although of course that’s a distant consideration at best. (Not to mention that I don’t have to burn off quite so many usable character names. I compiled that 48-person crew roster largely by cannibalizing characters, or at least names, from previous unsold/abandoned works of mine, but since I didn’t need all those characters here, I can save them for later.)

Oh yes, and I came upon a science article that briefly had me alarmed that the crucial event that sets the whole story in motion couldn’t actually happen at all, because I’d overlooked something major. For a few minutes, I was afraid I’d have to abandon or radically reimagine the whole thing. But I looked into the matter some more and figured out that I could still make it work given the context of the event — in fact, everything I needed to explain it away was already built into the story parameters I’d established — and I simply needed to add a few more lines to clarify that. Whew.

So anyway, I’m sure it’s still not perfect, but I feel it’s good enough to begin shopping around to agents. And this is a good time for it, what with Only Superhuman about to come out and getting pretty good buzz.