Archive for June, 2013

Release date for RISE OF THE FEDERATION 2 announced

Just saw this on The Trek Collective: Amazon is now listing a release date for Tower of Babel, my second installment in the Star Trek: Enterprise — Rise of the Federation series. The date given is March 25, which means it’s technically the April 2014 release.

And my deadline for finishing the dang thing is only 29 days from now, so I’d better get back to work.

Announcing the SPIDER-MAN: DROWNED IN THUNDER audiobook!

Good news! GraphicAudio, the company that produced the well-regarded, fully dramatized audiobook adaptation of Only Superhuman, is doing the same for another of my books, Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder, scheduled for August 2013. GA has adapted a number of DC Comics superhero novels before, both novelizations of comics series (many by Only Superhuman‘s editor Greg Cox) and original DC-based novels, but this is apparently only their second Marvel production and their first based on a prose novel (their previous one was a Civil War adaptation). I’m privileged that they chose my book to adapt. It suggests they were pleased with OS.

I’m glad to see Drowned in Thunder getting a second shot at life, because it’s one of my favorite things that I’ve written, and yet it’s my lowest-selling paperback novel to date. To be honest, Pocket Star’s Marvel novels probably didn’t get the kind of promotion they needed, and their cover designs (using a generic font rather than the familiar character/series logos) may have made them harder to spot on the shelves — though the striking cover art for DiT is one of the best covers any of my books has ever had:

Spider-Man Drowned in Thunder cover

So I’m hopeful the audiobook will bring renewed attention to DiT, and encourage more people to track down copies of the paperback, though those may be hard to find. There’s actually no financial profit for me in this; I wrote my Marvel novels (this and X-Men: Watchers on the Walls) for a flat fee with no royalties. But I just want more people to experience the story, because I’m really proud of it. And it should be interesting to hear it brought to life (although the voices I hear in my head when I read the book — and when I wrote it — are those from the ’90s animated series).

It should be noted that this book came out before the One More Day/Brand New Day reboot in the Spider-Man comics. It’s set during the era when Peter Parker was still married to Mary Jane Watson, and before he joined the Avengers. I assume the audiobook will also be set in that era; I don’t see any way to update its story to fit the current status quo. Anyway, there’s more information about the novel on my website here.

MAN OF STEEL: The best and worst Superman movie ever (Spoilers)

I just got back from seeing Man of Steel, and I can’t recall the last time I had such intensely mixed feelings about a movie. There were some things about it that were simply wonderful, ways in which it captured or interpreted aspects of the Superman story better than I’ve ever seen a live-action adaptation manage to pull off. But there were other aspects that were horribly, offensively wrong, and I’m astonished anyone who knew the first thing about the character could think they were acceptable in a Superman movie.

On the plus side: Henry Cavill, as an actor, is just about the perfect Superman. Nobody since Christopher Reeve, at least, has been so effective at convincing me that I’m looking at Superman, that this is a guy who has both incredible power and the fundamental clean-cut decency to be trusted with it. He’s a bit blander as a performer than Reeve or most other screen Supermen, but I could absolutely buy him in the role, which is more than I could ever really say for Dean Cain, Tom Welling, or Brandon Routh. This is someone I want to see donning the cape for years to come.

The rest of the cast is mostly good, my favorite being Diane Lane as Martha Kent; I’ve always found her a very effective, engaging, and beautiful actress, and she was no different here. Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer were a good Jor-El and Lara. Michael Shannon was an effectively menacing and nuanced Zod. Laurence Fishburne was given a one-note authority-figure role but it was right in his wheelhouse and he Fishburned the heck out of it. Harry Lennix and Christopher Meloni were good as the military characters, and Richard Schiff was fun if underutilized as Emil Hamilton. Amy Adams was not the ideal Lois — she didn’t really have the edge or the attitude — but she was competent and reasonably engaging in the role, and was definitely not as profoundly miscast as Kate Bosworth was the last time around. As for Kevin Costner… well, I’ve always felt he was a negative void of charisma, sucking all the interest out of any scene he was in, but here he actually managed to be neutral and maybe slightly engaging, which is about the best I could’ve hoped for. And it was also nice seeing cameos by a number of familiar Canadian TV stars such as Flashpoint‘s David Paetkau and Battlestar Galactica‘s Tahmoh Penikett and Alessandro Juliani (who was also Smallville‘s Emil Hamilton, so it was amusing to see him sharing a scene with Schiff’s Hamilton).

There are some bits that range from good to marvelous. The sequence where Kal-El (I guess he wasn’t called Superman yet) turned himself in to the military and talked with Lois and Gen. Swanwick was just perfect, the one part of the film where he was most effective at being Superman. The Kryptonian nanotechnology was cool — I absolutely loved the retro, Art Deco-meets-Melies styling of the ultra-high-tech visual display that showed Kal-El the story of Krypton’s history. I liked the worldbuilding and backstory for Krypton, which was better thought out than most live-action screen versions I’ve seen. I liked the film’s fresh take on certain things, like the way it pretty much casts aside the whole secret-identity thing from the start. Lois working alongside Superman every day and never suspecting it has never been flattering to her intelligence, and she’s known his identity in the comics long enough to prove that the secrecy isn’t really needed. I liked the thread about Kryptonians needing to adjust to Earth’s environment — and I absolutely loved how Zod and Faora were crippled by their inability to cope with their supersenses kicking in. That was a superb payoff for the setup scene with young Clark earlier.

*sigh*… I’ve been trying to think of more things I liked, but I guess I can’t put off talking about the bad stuff any longer. To sum up, this is a movie where they cast an ideal Superman, set up a great and clever backstory for him to become Superman… and then didn’t let him be Superman. Because what defines Superman is that he’s the guy who saves people, and this guy hardly saved anyone. It’s like the screenwriters went out of their way to make him as ineffectual at doing his job as they possibly could.

The film is simply overloaded with disaster porn, with populated areas being devastated by the battles and attacks going on. It’s taken to ridiculous excess, and Superman is at best unable to do anything about it, at worst complicit in it by not choosing to take the fight away from populated areas. The most he does to save anyone in the Smallville sequence is to say “Get inside, it’s not safe” — which proves to be useless and hypocritical advice as half the battle involves Superman, Faora, and the other guy smashing each other into occupied buildings. But that’s just the appetizer for the pointless orgy of destruction in Metropolis — with Superman literally on the exact opposite side of the planet, useless to save thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, from certain death.

And then they defeated the world engine and things calmed down and I thought it was finally over — but then Zod showed up and we got a whole new wave of disaster porn. I’m usually not a guy who talks in the theater (I’m not going to the special hell), but when the interminable wave of building collapses started all over again, I all but shouted “Really?” at the screen. I did not need any more of it. By this point I had lost patience with this movie and just wanted the destruction to for Rao’s sake stop.

Look, if I want to see a movie with cities being destroyed and everyone helpless to prevent it, I’ll watch a Godzilla movie. The whole essence of Superman, the thing that makes the fantasy of him so compelling, is that he’s the guy who can prevent it. It’s that when Superman is among us, nobody has to feel helpless anymore. In a Superman story, the action should be driven by Superman saving lives — giving us the same positive thrill we feel when we see firefighters saving people from burning buildings or people in disaster areas selflessly coming to one another’s aid. My favorite portion of the disappointing Superman Returns is the sequence where Superman is saving various Metropolitans from the disasters befalling the city. And it’s significant that Superman’s big debut sequence in the 1978 movie doesn’t end after he saves Lois and the helicopter pilot, but goes on to show him foiling crimes and saving lives all through the night. Superman is here to help. He saves people. That’s what makes him Superman. A Superman movie should not be a straight-up disaster movie, since he’s the guy who can stop disasters in their tracks.

But here, he hardly saves anyone, at least not on purpose. There’s a bit where Perry, Steve Lombard, and Jenny (Olsen?) are watching Superman with Lois in the lull between huge battles and Jenny says “He saved us.” Now, I’m usually a very easy audience when I see a movie in the theater; I let myself go with the visceral feel of the film and reserve my more critical reactions for later. But as soon as she said this line, I found it totally unbelievable. Why would she say that? As far as she was aware, the only person Superman had saved was Lois when she fell out of the exploding plane. And that’s not far from the truth. Sure, he did accidentally save the Planet staffers from getting crushed when he coincidentally destroyed the world engine at that moment. But that’s pretty much all he did. Superman didn’t save the world. Jor-El saved the world, by formulating the plan that was then enacted by Lois, Col. Hardy, and Hamilton as well as Superman. Sure, he had a key role to play, but he was just following instructions. He seemed like the least proactive participant in the plan, just a weapon to be pointed in the right direction while everyone else did the clever stuff. Now, I generally love it in superhero stories when the ordinary characters get to be heroic too. Heck, I even wrote a Spider-Man novel where J. Jonah Jameson got to be a hero. So it’s cool that all these other characters get their chances to be heroic. The problem is that it comes at the expense of Superman’s heroism. He comes off as a secondary character in a story about Jor-El and Lois saving the day.

Worse, he doesn’t even manage to save most of his own allies. Hardy and Hamilton and the rest of the flight crew all sacrifice themselves, and Superman only flies in at the last second to save Lois. Pro tip: if there are many people in danger and your superhero only belatedly arrives to save one person after many others have died, he’s not doing it right. The Green Lantern film had the same problem.

(For another thing… why did Zod choose Metropolis as one of the anchor points for the world engine? Superman hadn’t yet made it his home — as far as I could tell, he’d never even been to Metropolis at that point. Did Zod choose it to spite Lois? We didn’t get any sense that he felt any particular animosity toward her. There was no indication that Zod had any specific reason for the choice. So that made all the destruction even more monumentally gratuitous.)

And I have to join in the chorus of voices complaining about how Superman finally defeats Zod, by snapping his neck to stop him from killing innocent bystanders. I’m actually glad that I was spoiled on this, because it didn’t shock me and I was able to focus on how it was handled. I did like it that Superman reacted to having to kill Zod as a tragedy, that he mourned it rather than celebrating it. That ameliorates it somewhat. But it should never have been necessary in the first place. Again, it’s missing the point of Superman, which is that he’s the one who makes it possible to find a better way. By doing what he did here, he just sank to Zod’s level and, essentially, proved him right. Again, he’s a passive figure letting others dictate his choices. How can he live up to Jor-El’s exhortations to lead and inspire if he’s just reactive, if he doesn’t stand up and find his own, nobler path? He talked to Swanwick about how he had to help on his own terms, but then he let others, even Zod, define those terms for him.

But maybe that’s because this version of Jonathan Kent was such a dreadful role model. Usually, Jonathan is portrayed as Clark’s moral anchor, the one who inspires him to become the hero he grows into by instilling him with the good, wholesome values he lives by. But this time, Clark becomes Superman in spite of Jonathan, not because of him. Jonathan is basically wrong at every turn, leading Clark astray and teaching him to hide and mistrust and do nothing to help others. He even quite stupidly gives his own life out of fear of Clark’s discovery. Now, in a way I kind of liked this, because it gives Clark a motivation much like Peter Parker’s — he lost his father figure because he chose not to act when it was in his power, and that gives him an incentive not to let it happen again. But it really came at the expense of Jonathan Kent as a character. Just as Jor-El is effectively the real hero of this movie, Jonathan is essentially the villain, someone whose influence Clark has to reject before he can become a hero.

(Plus Jonathan was an idiot to tell people to get beneath the overpass to escape the tornado. The enclosed space would actually intensify the winds and increase the danger — that’s basic physics. Overpasses are one of the worst places to shelter from a tornado. It’s one thing for a movie to mishandle its character or to callously play on 9/11 imagery for gratuitous shock value, but the filmmakers may have actually endangered lives by recklessly perpetuating this myth. Which is pretty much anathema to what a Superman movie should do.)

Now, I might be able to forgive Superman’s killing of Zod and his failure to save lives in general… if he never lets it happen again. I’d like to see a scene very early in the sequel (if there is one) which establishes that he’s deeply unsatisfied with his failures and that they’ve motivated him to become much more careful and dedicated about saving lives and finding nonlethal ways of dealing with his enemies. Then I can chalk up the grotesque shortcomings of this movie to Superman’s learning curve. I can forgive a mistake more easily if the culpable party admits the mistake and strives to do better as a result. The same goes for the filmmakers, of course — this would also show that they’d recognized their own monumental mistakes here and resolved to correct them. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s likely. We seem to live in an era where the cinematic superhero is not required to care about saving lives. True, one thing that worked about The Avengers is that the heroes remained focused on protecting civilian lives throughout the climactic battle — a lesson Snyder and Goyer really, really need to learn from — but they were still utterly callous about killing the invaders, and in other Marvel movies the heroes don’t seem to be bothered by killing human beings. (And it’s very hypocritical for Tony Stark, who’s supposed to be on a journey of repentance for his complicity in building weapons, to be so cavalier about using Iron Man’s superweapons to kill bad guys left and right.) Filmmakers just don’t seem to remember that superheroes should be rescuers first, not warriors or vengeance-seekers.

There is so much in this movie that I like, yet so much that not only displeases me but actually makes me angry and bitter. I rarely react that way to any movie, but… come on, this is Superman. And that carries certain expectations with it. True, earlier Superman movies haven’t really surmounted these problems either. Reeve’s Superman also apparently killed his Zod, and did other pretty bad things like using his superpowers to get revenge on a bully and forcibly robbing Lois of her memories. But here it was just so over-the-top, so tiring having all this gratuitous, pointless destruction rammed down my throat (with a tediously blaring Hans Zimmer score only intensifying the sensory assault), and knowing that Superman should have been there to make a difference but wasn’t being allowed to because the filmmakers had no idea what to do with him. And it’s just so frustrating because this could have been a great movie. There are things about it that are wonderful, but there’s too much that totally ruins it.

Maybe the reason filmmakers have so much trouble getting Superman right is that they keep feeling they have to apologize for him, that they have to distance their takes from the perceived cheesiness or unrelatability of the basic premise. This film shied away from even using the name Superman, as if they were embarrassed by it. They didn’t use it in the title, they barely used it in the script, and they even credited the lead character as “Clark Kent/Kal-El.” How can you make Superman work if you’re embarrassed even to admit that he is Superman?

Well, trying to look on the bright side: I didn’t think Batman Begins was very successful either. It also fell apart in the third act due to excessive, implausible action and a hero who was uncharacteristically callous about letting people die. But then we got The Dark Knight, which hugely surpassed its predecessor (though also, sadly, its successor) in quality — which built on the parts that worked and improved on the parts that didn’t. I’m hopeful there’s a chance that will happen again — though at this point I really don’t feel like I ever want to see another Zack Snyder movie. I do want to see more of Henry Cavill as Superman, and I do want to see an interconnected DC movie universe. But, as with this movie’s Clark and Jonathan, that would have to happen in spite of this movie, as a rejection of its approach, rather than because of it.

Thoughts on GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989)

When I did my overview of the Heisei era of the Godzilla franchise, I was only able to cover the last five films, since the first two were not yet out on DVD in America. In the interim, the second, Godzilla vs. Biollante, has come out, and though Netflix still hasn’t gotten it, my library has. So I’ve finally been able to see it.

This is a tough film to summarize, since it has a convoluted plot. But it has interesting and ambitious ideas that unfortunately suffer in the execution. In the wake of Godzilla’s 1984 attack on Tokyo in The Return of Godzilla (after which he ended up buried in a volcano), we see that a number of factions are battling to obtain a sample of Godzilla’s cells to study their remarkable regenerative properties: the Japan Self-Defense Force, an American terrorist group called Bio-Major, and an Arab country called Saradia, whose lead agent/assassin ends up with the prize. A Saradian biotech firm is working with Dr. Shiragami (Koji Takahashi) and his daughter Erika to develop hybrid crops to make the desert bloom, and Shiragami wants Godzilla cells to make them indestructible. Although it’s hard to figure that out from the original Japanese audio track, since the actors are speaking in awkwardly translated and badly pronounced English, with Japanese subtitles. (The first dialogue spoken in the movie is all in English, so at first I thought I’d selected the wrong audio track on the DVD.) Anyway, a Bio-Major bombing kills Erika, leading Shiragami to swear off further research with Godzilla cells, due to what I’m going to assume is a grief so profound that it permanently robs him of the ability to form facial expressions. Seriously, even the rubber Godzilla mask is less deadpan than this guy.

Five years later, Shiragami is working with the roses Erika was with when she died, and he’s working with the 17-year-old psychic Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka) because he thinks Erika’s soul is in the roses somehow. Miki, of course, will be a regular character for the rest of the series, but here her role is secondary, basically just a walking exposition engine. The female lead is Asuka (Yoshiko Tanaka), who apparently works for the “Japan Psyonics Center” [sic] that studies Miki and other psychic children. There’s a nice chilling moment where all the psychic kids draw pictures of what they dreamed, and they all hold up drawings of Godzilla. It seems he’s awake and moving under the volcano. This lets the government convince Shiragami to work on using Godzilla cells to develop anti-nuclear energy bacteria (ANEB) that can be used as a weapon against Godzilla. There’s an interesting attempt to touch on the kind of ethical questions the original film raised, because bacteria that could neutralize nuclear materials, while potentially beneficial for cleaning up disasters or fighting kaiju, could also be turned into weapons and disrupt the global balance of power. As with the Oxygen Destroyer, the threat of Godzilla compels the weapon’s development despite the risks. But the terrorist groups want the ANEB too, and Bio-Major plants bombs to release Godzilla from the mountain to blackmail the government into giving up the ANEB. But the Saradian assassin fouls up the exchange, the bombs go off, and Godzilla’s free.

I almost forgot — meanwhile, Shiragami has crossed G-cells with rose cells and some of Erika’s surviving cells because… I don’t know, he’s basically insane, I guess. And this has somehow created the plant monster Biollante, with killer vines and stuff. Biollante ends up planted in a lake, a giant fat stem with arms and tendrils and a rose-head with teeth in the middle — one of the least intimidating kaiju ever. Godzilla is drawn to it, sensing his cloned cells within it, and they have a fight that’s rather dull because Biollante is stationary throughout. Godzilla eventually sets it on fire and it seems to burn up, but sparkly spores or something rise into the sky and Shiragami says something about Biollante being immortal that everybody (including him) subsequently ignores. After this detour, we get back to the plot as the military tries to deter G from reaching a nuclear power plant to recharge, since the Heisei Godzilla feeds on nuclear energy. The main military characters are Lt. Gondo (Toru Minegishi), a snarky/tough comic hero type I rather liked, and Major Kuroki (Masanobu Takashima), who’s more ultraserious and is in charge of remote-piloting the Super X 2, a high-tech flying machine whose main weapon is the Fire Mirror, an array of synthetic diamonds for reflecting Godzilla’s atomic ray back against him, and which works about as well as human weapons ever do against Godzilla (i.e. it works at first but he then rallies and overwhelms it).

Miki’s most striking moment in the film is when she faces down Godzilla alone to try to telepathically or telekinetically nudge him to divert or delay his march on Osaka. But it’s unclear what, if anything, she accomplishes, since Osaka is soon being trampled underfoot (but maybe she gave them more time to evacuate it). Gondo retrieves the ANEB from the Saradians and puts it in shells to fire at Godzilla. Gondo gets in a nice heroic jab at Godzilla, with both weapon and wisecrack, before Godzilla gets his own back. But the ANEB doesn’t seem to work, and the brain trust deduces that it’s because this giant, intensely energetic, nuclear-powered monster has a very low body temperature because he’s cold-blooded. Uhh, yeah, right. So they use an experimental “Thunder Controller” technology to heat him up so the bacteria can grow and kill him from the inside. Oh, and Biollante’s spores rain down and it regrows into a final form whose head now looks like a cross between Audrey II and a crocodile, and she (?) holds Godzilla at bay for a while… but it’s the bacteria that finally do G in (at least enough that he has to retreat into the cooling ocean to hold them at bay, ending the threat for now). Then the various human-level plots are resolved somewhat anticlimactically.

Wow, that was a longer summary than I intended, but it’s hard to encapsulate this story briefly because there are so many entangled threads. But they don’t really come together into a very coherent story. Most frustratingly, the thread about Biollante, one of the title characters of the movie, is the most expendable plotline of the lot. Biollante doesn’t even defeat Godzilla, just has a random fight with him in the middle of a sequence of human technology defeating Godzilla. There’s some half-baked moralizing about the dangers of genetic engineering, with Biollante as the poster child for the monsters it could create, but Biollante doesn’t really cause any harm except to a couple of Bio-Major terrorists. Mostly it’s just there for Miki to stare at and talk about how Erika’s soul is inside it, or not, or whatever.

There are some good ingredients here. Gondo is a good character, well-played. The attempt to use kaiju to address ethical questions about the development of dangerous technologies is a nice callback to the original, even if it lacks payoff and is weakened by Takahashi’s totally wooden performance. And there’s merit to the idea of adding Miki, a character who can sense Godzilla’s thoughts and give him a “voice” of sorts, which is a useful storytelling device; but there’s essentially zero attempt to give her any personality yet, unless you count her one impressive moment, her fearlessness in standing up to Godzilla and making him flinch (though I’m still not clear on what the heck she was supposed to be doing and whether she succeeded). But ultimately it ends up as kind of a jumble, and the parts that don’t work overwhelm those that do. All in all I’d call it a weak film with some very good touches here and there. (Like a scene set in a Godzilla Memorial Restaurant in Tokyo, in a building that still has an unrepaired Godzilla claw mark in its wall with windows built within it. That’s a nice bit of worldbuilding.)

The music is a mixed bag too — literally a mix of reused Akira Ifukube cues (including the lively Godzilla main theme, the more ponderous Godzilla horror theme, and the oddly cheerful military march from the original film) and new music by Koichi Sugiyama, which is a mix of styles. Some of Sugiyama’s music is nice, but his Super X 2 leitmotif has a kind of cliched heroic-music sound, a very “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder” quality. The wackiest bit is his motif for the terrorists, which is a ’70s-funk remix of the Godzilla main theme. (It’s Charlie’s Angels vs. Godzilla!) All in all, it’s pretty inconsistent, like the film itself.

By the way, I came across another series of Heisei-era reviews in this thread on the Ex Isle BBS. I raised the question I had about The Return of Godzilla, namely whether it treated its title monster as the regenerated original or a second member of the same species. As far as anyone who’d seen that film could tell me, it treated Godzilla as the original with no explanation for his return. But I’ve seen other sources say it was a “new” Godzilla, and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, the final Heisei film, treated it as such, though the third Heisei film Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah treated it as the same one.

So in that thread I formulated a hypothesis that may or may not work, which I now repost here:

TRoG is like GMK in that it’s set in a world where there have been no Godzilla attacks for several decades since the events of the original film. So maybe it’s also like GMK in that a lot of the details of the ’54 attack have been forgotten or suppressed. Perhaps the Oxygen Destroyer was classified here as well. So maybe the Heisei Godzilla is a second member of the species, but the characters believe it’s the original Godzilla returned because they don’t know that Godzilla was killed. And the folks from the future in GvKG are confused about it too, since it’s from centuries in their past. So the Godzillasaurus they relocate in the past was actually the progenitor of the second Godzilla — and maybe there was another one left behind on that or a neighboring island that mutated into the original G and attacked in ’54. And then, sometime between GvKG and the final film, the truth about the Oxygen Destroyer and the original Godzilla’s death was declassified. So it wouldn’t be a continuity error, just a change in what the inhabitants of the Heisei universe believed about their past.

Of course, this doesn’t help resolve the huge time-travel logic holes in GvKG, like how come everybody remembered the recent Godzilla attacks if that Godzilla’s history had been changed. But what I’m kind of suggesting here is that we ignore that bit of nonsense and retcon it away — pretend that the reference to people remembering recent Godzilla attacks is actually a reference to remembering the original ’54 attack.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , ,

Enter the (collagen) matrix

Nearly a year ago, I posted about the minor periodontal surgery I had to deal with the receding gumline on my lower front teeth. I said there might be a second procedure to graft gum tissue from my palate into the receded area (to protect the roots of the front teeth), but I was hoping that wouldn’t be necessary. It soon enough became evident that it would be necessary, but I put it off as long as I could, until finally the peridontist’s office called me last month to schedule the procedure, which was done yesterday.

Turns out that putting it off worked out well, though, because in the interim, the doctor began doing a new version of the procedure which he offered me as an alternative. Instead of taking gum tissue from my upper palate, he could implant an artificial graft, basically just a scaffold of collagen (porcine in origin — I guess from pig hooves or something, but carefully purified and sterilized) that my own fibroblasts would grow into, forming new gum tissue to replace what was lost, with the collagen eventually breaking down and being “resorbed” into my body. So instead of taking existing gum tissue and moving it elsewhere, it’s enabling me to grow new gum tissue where the old tissue was lost.

The high-tech nature of the procedure appealed to me, as did the fact that it would simplify the operation and let me avoid the cutting into my upper palate. But I still took care to ask questions and read the documentation about the graft. There didn’t seem to be any significant drawbacks and there were definite advantages, so I agreed to the new procedure. It wasn’t very pleasant getting Novocaine stuck into my gums (though he used the sonic wand that temporarily numbed my nerves to ease the pain of the needle going in) and having him go in and pull things back and stitch things in, but it was easier than it would’ve been before the new grafts became available.

And now it’s the same drill as last time — ice packs and ibuprofen, soft foods and nothing hot for the first day or so, then no biting with the front teeth for about a month. Last time I found I was able to get by with a pretty normal diet so long as I cut things into small pieces, but I think I’ll still be having fewer sandwiches and more pasta salad for a while.

And within a couple of months or so, as long as I’m careful to avoid putting too much pressure on the area and crushing the collagen matrix so the cells can’t grow into it, I’ll have a nice new intact gumline there. I wish there were other parts of my body I could regenerate like that. Hopefully, by the time I need to, medical science will have made it possible.

Categories: Science, Uncategorized

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and other vintage monster movies

I just caught the classic 1953 monster movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms on Turner Classic Movies. This is a seminal entry in the genre in many ways. It was the first feature film on which the late Ray Harryhausen worked as lead special-effects creator, and the debut of his trademark “Dynamation” technique for incorporating stop-motion creatures into background film footage through the creative use of split-screen effects. It was the first movie about a giant monster unleashed or created by the power of the atom, launching a whole genre of monster movies. Or perhaps two whole genres, since it was a direct inspiration for the following year’s Godzilla, whose legacy I’ve covered in an earlier series of posts.

But it’s a film I haven’t seen in far too long, since I barely remembered any of it, aside from the iconic sequence of the title creature (the Rhedosaurus, reputedly named in honor of Ray Harryhausen’s initials and/or the sound of his first name) eating an overconfident policeman. Thus I was able to come at it pretty fresh.

So how well does it work as a monster movie? Reasonably so. It opens with the kind of faux-documentary narration that was common in sci-fi films of the decade, with a young Bill Woodson’s voice intoning about an upcoming military experiment in the Arctic with characteristic Woodsonian gravitas. The experiment, of course, is an atom bomb detonation, which breaks up the ice and releases something that a pair of radar operators (one of whom is a young James Best, the future Rosco P. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard) briefly detect and dismiss. A pair of scientists examining the aftermath of the blast run afoul of the rhedosaur, which I think was revealed way too openly too early; there should’ve been more mystery about its appearance at this stage. Anyway, only one of the scientists survives, and he’s our hero, Tom Nesbitt (Swiss actor Paul Hubschmid under the name Paul Christian — it’s odd for a ’50s US film to cast a lead actor whose accent is so distinctly not American, and there’s even a line about Nesbitt being an immigrant). The rest of the first half of the film gets a bit plodding, since it’s mainly about Tom and others being told they’re crazy for seeing a monster, interspersed with brief glimpses of the hungry rhedosaur trashing ships and stuff (including a lighthouse sequence which reminded Harryhausen’s friend Ray Bradbury of a story he’d published, leading the studio to buy the story rights from Bradbury so they could use its title; Bradbury subsequently retitled his own story “The Fog Horn”). Things get more interesting when Tom meets eminent paleontologist Dr. Elson (the charming Cecil Kellaway) and his assistant Lee (the lovely Paula Raymond), who’s the first to believe Tom and becomes his obligatory love interest.

The film picks up when Tom finds another witness to convince Elson, who then leads a diving-bell expedition to find the creature, only to be eaten by it. What’s appealing here is how dedicated Elson is to the cause of science; even though he sees the beast coming after the diving bell, he devotes his final moments to reporting his observations to Lee for posterity. I suppose one possible reading is that he was so blinded by his ivory-tower mentality that he didn’t have the sense to realize he was in danger, but I felt it came off more positively. Maybe it depends on the viewer’s attitudes toward science.

Soon thereafter, the beast attacks Manhattan, with no particular motivation beyond that it’s just what giant monsters do — an arbitrariness that might be more excusable if this weren’t the first entry in the genre. Well, I suppose maybe it’s justified by the earlier dialogue about the creature’s extended hibernation in the Arctic ice giving it a ravenous appetite; New York City would be the densest population center on land near its native territory in the undersea canyons off the New York shore. (Godzilla will be said in the following year’s film to have been displaced from his natural feeding grounds by the atomic tests, so that might have been his motivation as well vis-a-vis Tokyo — although the sequel claimed he was angered by the city’s bright lights.) Interestingly, there’s a fair amount of police effort to battle the creature before the military (led by Kenneth Tobey) gets called in — I’m not sure how often that happened in later monster movies. Another nice twist is that the filmmakers remembered that less visible organisms could survive from prehistory; the creature’s blood is discovered to contain a virulent disease that humans have no immunity to, so the military can’t risk blowing it up or burning it. Tom has the idea to use a radioisotope grenade to burn/sterilize it from the inside — although that leads to a climactic showdown at Coney Island where the roller coaster catches fire and burns down around or behind the creature,  making me wonder if the heroes really just made things worse instead of better, since if the fire did engulf the creature’s body, then the smoke would spread not only the disease contamination but the radioactive contamination as well. They sort of sacrificed story coherence for spectacle here.

As with many Harryhausen films, it’s the effects that are the real standout. It doesn’t have the greatest lead actor, but Kellaway does a good job and Raymond is a striking leading lady. The story is a pretty much by-the-numbers template for the genre to follow, without a fraction of the philosophical and character depth of the original Godzilla, but a decent beginning. (I hadn’t realized that the movie was co-written by Fred Freiberger, who would later produce the third season of Star Trek and the second of Space: 1999.)

One interesting thing: I don’t think the rhedosaurus is ever actually called a dinosaur in the film, just a prehistoric creature from 100 million years ago. Which is good, because it doesn’t have the anatomy of a dinosaur, instead having splayed-out legs and a dragging tail. Wikipedia calls it a diapsid, a member of the larger class that included dinosaurs as well as lizards, snakes, and crocodiles.

I’ve caught a few other monster movies on TCM in the past month or so, and though it’s been a few weeks, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on them as well.

It Came From Outer Space (1953) is one of the classic SF films directed by Jack Arnold, whose work I covered in my earlier review of the Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy. It also has producer William Alland and star Richard Carlson in common with Creature, as well as composers Herman Stein and Henry Mancini. It’s one of the best “alien invasion” films of the genre, because it’s one of the few (along with The Day the Earth Stood Still) in which the aliens are benevolent and the paranoia of humanity is the real threat. If anything, the film suffers a bit from the aliens’ benevolent intentions being made clear too early on. There are a lot of “cheat” scare moments in the film, characters (particularly leading lady Barbara Rush) screaming at things that turn out to be harmless, and it felt like a cheap attempt to shoehorn obligatory scare beats into a film where they didn’t really belong. But maybe the effect was deliberate, to underline the message that our fears are often nothing but our own imagination — to make viewers embarrassed by their own fear of the unknown and thus drive home the message about paranoia. In which case it’s a nice subversion of genre formula.

Of course, a key factor in the film’s quality is that it’s mostly the work of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury was hired to do a treatment for a monster movie and offered the studio the choice of a more conventional evil-alien movie or a more thoughtful piece with benevolent visitors, and was surprised when they asked for the latter. He then did a very long and detailed “treatment” for the movie telling pretty much the entire story and dialogue, and credited screenwriter Harry Essex basically just adapted that treatment into script format, leaving most of it intact. Well, there are conflicting reports on how much Essex contributed, but the dialogue has Bradbury’s unmistakeable poetry to it, so I think it must be mostly his words.

The Magnetic Monster is another film Richard Carlson did in 1953, produced and co-written by Ivan Tors and directed by Curt Siodmak. Apparently it’s the first of a loose trilogy involving the Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI), not to be confused with the Office of Scientific Intelligence from the ’70s bionic shows. This is a weird film with kind of a faux-documentary flavor, in which Carlson and his team of scientific investigators tackle the theft of a powerfully magnetic radioisotope which turns out to be a magnetic “unipole” (I guess they meant monopole) that somehow has the ability to generate mass, threatening to enlarge exponentially and tilt the world off its axis unless they find a way to neutralize it. (Actually Carlson claims it would throw Earth out of orbit altogether, but that’s not how physics works.) There’s some halfway decent portrayal of the scientific process and of a real-life early computer called MANIAC to crunch numbers, alongside a rather bland subplot about Carlson and his wife hoping to move into a bigger house because they’re expecting a child, even though they had to be circumspect about it because you couldn’t say “pregnant” onscreen back then.

But what’s totally bizarre about the film is exemplified in the title. Even though the menace is a radioactive substance, the film persists in treating it as a living monster, even a consciously malevolent force. The characters talk about it in those terms even though it’s clearly ridiculous. Early on, when they first begin to realize that the isotope has vanished from where it was initially being studied, they talk about the threat of it running loose, rather than about hunting down the person who took it, even though the latter is what actually happens. It’s a deeply awkward and unconvincing attempt to trick audiences into thinking they’re watching a monster movie. I only cover it here because it’s too freaky not to mention.

Tarantula (1955) is another Jack Arnold-William Alland collaboration, again scored by Stein and Mancini, and starring Revenge of the Creature‘s John Agar as well as Nestor Paiva, who was in the first two Gill-Man films. It also stars the delightfully named Mara Corday and The Man from UNCLE‘s Leo G. Carroll. This is Arnold’s first stab at the giant-monster genre, in a similar vein to the classic giant-ant movie Them!, but with the innovation of using travelling-matte techniques to incorporate footage of a live tarantula into background plates. The FX are pretty good for the day, though there are some shots where the mattes don’t line up with the scenery and the giant spider’s leg vanishes in midair.

Carroll plays a scientist who, as we see early on, is experimenting with creating giant animals. There’s a marvelously convincing use of rear projection in the set to make it look like there are giant rabbits and such in the cages behind Carroll, as well as the titular tarantula, which escapes when Carroll is attacked by an assistant suffering from acromegaly as a result of the experiments (the assistant dies in the resulting fire and Carroll buries him in secret). Agar is a doctor trying to explain another case of acromegaly (or “acromegalia” as they called it) in the scientist’s assistant, who had normal proportions not long before. Corday plays Carroll’s new assistant, who’s supposed to be a smart career-woman scientist, but is actually pretty dumb — even when she discovers that Carroll is working on accelerating animal growth, it doesn’t occur to her to make a connection with the earlier assistant’s acromegaly death (or the disappearance of the other one), even though he’s  standing right next to her while he mutters about taking more care with human trials “next time.”

Anyway, this is kind of like Beast in that it takes a while before the characters figure out there’s a giant monster out there; this time even our hero Agar is slow to catch on to the threat. It also has kind of an anticlimactic ending; after the main characters are unable to defeat the tarantula themselves, they call in a military napalm strike that takes it down handily, pretty much leaving the protagonists irrelevant to the resolution of the film. True, it was rather common in ’50s monster movies for the heroes to take a back seat to the military in the closing action, but it seems particularly egregious here.

The main point of interest to Tarantula is the portrayal of Carroll’s Dr. Deemer. At first he comes off as a mad scientist, but ultimately it turns out that he’s got the entirely noble motivation of ending world hunger by developing a super-nutrient (and there’s a passing reference to the power of the atom being the key to its creation, just to work in the obligatory radiation/monster connection), and that he was more the victim of his assistant’s rampage after the experiment went wrong.

The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) is kind of an interesting little film, though not a great one. It’s certainly a misnamed one, since there are multiple monsters — giant mollusks a bit bigger than human-sized — and they only challenge the Salton Sea in Southern California and the canals surrounding it (although there’s an implied risk to the world if they should spread beyond the region). This time there are no nuclear tests involved, just a sea-floor earthquake exposing and rehydrating a desiccated nest of ancient creature eggs. The main characters are the staff of the military base that discovers and must fight the creatures, mainly Col. Twillinger (Tim Holt), who initially comes off as stern and rigorous but softens for secretary Gail (Audrey Dalton) and her young daughter. He’s an odd choice for a leading man, in sort of a Jack Webb vein, I guess. The most notable star here is Hans Conreid as the main scientist. The monsters are fairly nasty-looking, but they don’t look much like the mollusks in the nature film Conreid shows. Yes, one apparently common monster-movie trope that this film and Tarantula both share (along with Them!, IIRC) is the lengthy sequence of the scientist narrating documentary footage of the normal-sized versions of the giant animal in the film. I suppose these scenes are useful at inserting a bit of scientific justification for what we see, but even by ’50s standards they seem to go on awfully long, and they can undermine the plausibility of the fake monster by contrast with the real footage. (Beast from 20,000 Fathoms has something similar — during Elson’s dive, there’s a big chunk of stock footage of a shark-octopus fight, though it’s passed off as something Elson is watching live.)

I’ve seen this movie twice now, but the main thing that stands out for me is a scene at the end where the secretary and her daughter are trapped by a creature that hatched in the lab because the daughter was playing where she wasn’t supposed to and turned up the thermostat. Twillinger is facing down the creature, trying to get past it and save the girls, and there’s a large fire ax clearly visible on the wall behind him. He looks around for a weapon, turns to look at the wall so that the ax is right in his line of sight… and then he picks up a fire extinguisher and sprays the beast with it instead! I’ve never seen such a blatant Chekhov’s Gun be so completely ignored.

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