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Archive for October, 2013

New essay on ONLY SUPERHUMAN at Upcoming4.me

Upcoming4.me, which bills itself as “an online speculative fiction magazine featuring best content from leading quality publishers and independent authors,” recently asked me to write an essay for their “Story Behind” column, in which authors discuss the genesis of their novels. I’ve talked about the convoluted creative process behind Only Superhuman before on this blog and elsewhere, but on thinking back for this new essay, I managed to find some things to say that I haven’t mentioned before. You can read the essay here:

http://upcoming4.me/news/book-news/story-behind-only-superhuman-by-christopher-l-bennett

Only Superhuman MMPB cover

The Man From UNCLE Season 2 Affair: Eps. 13-18 (Spoilers)

“The Adriatic Express Affair”: A bottle show aboard a train is a nice way to save money on sets while having some international intrigue and bringing an eclectic group of characters together. Here, Solo and Kuryakin are after, they think, a THRUSH scientist who’s developed a sample of a substance that would “interfere with the reproductive process,” as Waverly puts it — though he doesn’t clarify whether this means sterility or some sort of anti-Viagra, but I assume the former since they talk about it ending all life on Earth within a few generations. The McGuffin is somewhere aboard the Adriatic Express, a nonstop train from Vienna to Venice. The episode opens with our boys at the station looking for the THRUSH doctor, and does that Judgment at Nuremburg thing (or, as it’s better known now, that Hunt for Red October thing, or maybe that Star Trek VI thing) where we’re shown the characters at the train station speaking German, then we pull in on Solo’s face to establish his POV (with a train whistle to bridge the audio transition), then cut back to the same characters speaking English (i.e. we accept that they’re “really” speaking German and the TV is magically translating for our benefit). It’s a nice stylistic touch, and there’s another one where the person our boys think they’re following magically disappears behind a group of passersby while our boys close in on him from either side. Realistically there’s no way David McCallum didn’t see exactly where the actor went, but I watched the shot frame by frame more than once and I don’t have a clue where the actor went, so yeah, that was clever.

Anyway, several other characters are established as passengers, primarily Mme. Olga Nemirovitch (Jessie Royce Landis), an aging glamour diva and cosmetics mogul, and 19-year-old Eva (Juliet Mills, actually 24 at the time), the innocent of the week, who’s desperately trying to deliver Olga’s chocolates to her after the man she assisted, who in turn was Olga’s assistant, was struck by a taxi en route to the station. Eva ends up getting stuck on the nonstop train thanks in part to Solo and Illya forcing their way aboard, so they aren’t off to a great start. There’s also a rather striking blond model (Jennifer Billingsley) who’s in a party mood and has a thing for Illya, as well as being totally carefree and oblivious about all the dangerous stuff that ensues later on. Oh, and an American tourist who keeps stumbling upon the dead bodies that Illya tries to hide in the ladies’ room for some reason.

Anyway, it turns out the guy they were chasing onto the train — who had an unconvincing fake beard — wasn’t the doctor who invented the deadly virus, but some minor THRUSH functionary who had a crisis of conscience and was trying to get the virus away from his boss — who turns out to be Mme. Olga. When Solo makes amends with Eva and then meets Olga through her, he tries to convince Olga to side with UNCLE rather than THRUSH (though speaking implicitly, for innocent Eva is dining with them), but she tells him that not only has she been loyal to THRUSH for over 42 years, the whole organization was her idea in the first place. This bombshell is never followed up on. Anyway, once alone with Eva, Olga convinces the girl that Solo is the evil THRUSH agent and tries to turn her into a seductress, giving her a gun which she assures Eva will only fire knockout gas, but which is rigged to fire bullets in both directions and kill Eva and Solo alike. Solo is surprisingly unaffected by the teenager’s clumsy seduction — I guess he has some limits after all — and saves them both from the gun. Then he and Illya attempt to find the virus capsule, and it’s quite easy to guess where it is (I’ve given you all the clues, Gentle Reader), but of course our guys don’t figure it out until the end.

Not a great episode, clunky in some respects, but not bad either. It’s interesting to see the innocent being used by both sides, as it were, although you never get the sense that Olga’s plan to use her poses any real danger to Solo. And the “intrigue among a diverse group of travelers” idea never really comes together, since most of them are just background players who have a couple of gags to embellish the main plot. Still, the way this season is going, I’m glad to see an episode that’s devoid of any major failings.

“The Yukon Affair”: The show must have been running out of ethnic groups to stereotype offensively, because this week it’s Inuit, aka “Eskimos.” G. Emory Partridge (George Sanders), the wannabe old-fashioned British feudal lord from last season’s “The Gazebo in the Maze Affair,” has established a new petty fiefdom (without Jeanette Nolan as his wife this time) in the Yukon, where he’s uncovered a superdense, highly magnetic mineral — called “Quadrillennium X,” because most TV writers are not geologists — that could somehow allow THRUSH to control the seas and airways, I guess by disrupting navigation. He plans to sell it to THRUSH, but rather unwisely tips UNCLE off by having his men try to assassinate Solo with a chunk of the stuff, using his trademark pear tree (as in “A Partridge in…”) as a calling card. Luckily UNCLE has a geology computer that can instantly identify the exact coordinates where an otherwise completely unfamiliar mineral sample originated, because this is the 1960s and computers are magic oracles. But no sooner do Solo and Illya surface from the submarine that brings them that they’re captured by Eskimos. Luckily, their headman’s daughter, Murphy, is half-Caucasian and educated at McGill, so she’s properly Westernized and therefore the only good member of a tribe which she herself calls primitive. The only thing that keeps this from being totally offensive is that the actress they cast, Tianne Gabrielle, is not a white actress in brownface but genuinely looks the part — though I can find no other screen credits or information about her online, so I can’t be sure of her actual ethnicity.

Anyway, the episode is mostly a bunch of back-and-forth captures,escapes, and mutual outwittings, with Partridge abetted by the headman and locals along with his icily lovely blonde niece Victoria (Marian Thompson), who may not be as loyal to the family as she appears, and with Murphy siding with the UNCLE boys as they try to destroy the Chemical X before THRUSH arrives to collect it. It’s not an improvement on the previous Partridge episode, which was pretty mediocre to begin with. Its main virtue is that both female guests are quite attractive in nicely contrasting ways. And there’s some mild metatextual amusement in seeing George Sanders hanging around in the Yukon in an episode aired just six weeks before his appearance as the original Mr. Freeze on Batman. (The comics character was previously named Mr. Zero, which was changed to follow the TV show’s lead, so yes, he was the original Mr. Freeze.) Oh, and speaking of dates, there’s a bit of an anomaly with the dating here, since a couple of lines indicate that Partridge last clashed with the UNCLE boys years earlier and disappeared more than a year before the episode, even though his first episode aired less than nine months earlier. Well, that’s ’60s TV (non)continuity for you.

“The Very Important Zombie Affair”: I was wrong, they haven’t run out of cultures to insult. This week it’s Caribbean vodoun society, or “voodoo,” with all the voodoo-doll and zombie stereotypes, with the dictator who rules through the power of voodoo curses, El Supremo, being implausibly played by Claude Akins. Yup, Sheriff Lobo as a Caribbean dictator. Solo and Illya are trying to deliver Sheriff Voodoo’s leading (and badly acted) political rival, Delgado (Ken Renard), to a conference to denounce him when a voodoo-doll package is delivered and traps him in a trance. His wife then takes him back to Unnamed Caribbean Country to try to get him cured by a voodoo priestess, and the men from UNCLE go to retrieve him. They run afoul of Sheriff Voodoo’s enforcer Ramirez (Rodolfo Acosta), and recruit the help of the innocent, a vacuous blonde named Suzy (Linda Gaye Scott), a manicurist who’s terrified of El Supremo but forced to stay because he likes her work. She’s played with a ridiculously overdone Southern accent — she uses “y’all” as a singular pronoun, which is not unheard of but rare, so in this case I’d call it just one more lazy stereotype to add to the list.

I’m hard pressed to remember anything in particular about the plot, except that it’s another bunch of captures and escapes and evasions as they try to get to Delgado and evade Ramirez’s attempts to expel, arrest, or murder them in that order, plus an annoying scene of Akins pretending he had mixed ethnicity despite his blue eyes and talking about how the jungle drums ran through his veins and he had no patience for “your civilization,” since of course civilization is something white people invented, right? This show is really starting to get on my nerves.

Aside from a moderately enjoyable scene of Suzy wrapped in a towel that isn’t very well secured, the only real point of interest in this episode is a new, but mediocre, Gerald Fried score.

“The Dippy Blonde Affair”: Uh-oh. A sexist stereotype in the title and a script by Peter Allan Fields. Should I be worried? Well, it’s not too misogynistic, I guess. The titular blonde is Jojo (Joyce Jameson), who’s dating THRUSH engineer Pendleton (Fabrizio Mioni) and attracts the interest of his boss, Baldonado (Robert Strauss), who checks up on Pendleton as he’s completing a pair of devices that will enhance an “ion projector” weapon to lethal intensity. Or rather, a scientist working for Pendleton perfects the spherical devices and then gets shot for his trouble, an act witnessed by Jojo. Meanwhile, Solo has infiltrated the house and gets himself captured (in an awkward bit of editing, the teaser ends mid-fight and then Act I opens with the revelation that Solo lost the fight). As a test of Jojo’s loyalty, Pendleton insists that either she kill Solo for him or he’ll kill her. While she’s led a dissolute life of petty crime, she’s never killed before, and is relieved when Illya’s stunt double barges in and beats up Pendleton’s stunt double. She fills the UNCLE agents in on the location of the spheres, to Pendleton’s disgust.

On later interrogation, Pendleton sneaks a suicide pill, and with his dying breath, asks to be shipped home to his family in Riverside. Needing to find the ion projector, Solo and Waverly recruit Jojo to infiltrate the THRUSH cell. She approaches two of Baldonado’s men, Max (actor/director James Frawley) and Eddie (Rex Holman), and wins their trust by “killing” Illya when he confronts them. This gets her in with Baldonado, whose attraction she’s happy to cultivate, since it entails lavishing her with gifts and money. But Max grows impatient with his boss’s romantic preoccupation. It turns out that the Riverside cemetery is actually the THRUSH base, and the plan was to revive Pendleton with an antidote to his death-feigning pill. (I was amused to see Frawley’s character “directing” the fake mourners before the funeral. It was shortly after this that Frawley would make his TV-directing debut with The Monkees, the beginning of a directorial career that would span over 40 years and would include directing The Muppet Movie.) But the aging, lonely Baldonado is falling in love with Jojo and wants Pendleton to stay dead, an order that sits poorly with Max, and that he and Eddie decide to override, more afraid of Baldonado’s THRUSH masters than of the man himself.

But when Illya gets himself trapped by the bad guys (and Max recognizes him as the agent Jojo “killed,” proving that she’s working for UNCLE), Solo confronts Baldonado and threatens to kill Jojo if he doesn’t order Illya freed. This leads to a final confrontation in which Baldonado’s own blind devotion to Jojo causes him to sabotage his own side’s plan and shoot his own men, and in which Solo is pretty much useless since he’s making out in the car with Jojo, leaving Illya to mop up Baldonado on his own — in the rain, no less. Sometimes Solo is a real jerk.

There’s some good dialogue in this episode, and some moments that work well, but there are also some awkward bits of scripting, directing, and editing, and the guest cast aside from Frawley is fairly unimpressive. There’s a decent, jazzy new score by Robert Drasnin, though.

“The Deadly Goddess Affair”: In North Africa, Solo eavesdrops on an awkwardly expository discussion involving the implausibly named Col. Hubris (Victor Buono), revealing THRUSH’s plan to send him a courier pouch containing money and McGuffin files via robot plane, which he will trigger to release the cargo using a remote control that he thinks is unique, except UNCLE has intercepted the plans and built their own. Solo and Illya arrange to bring the cargo down on the Mediterranean “Island of Circe,” some sort of generic pan-Mediterranean land where everyone has Italian names and accents despite the implied Grecian heritage. (Never mind that Circe’s island was actually called Aeaea, and was mythical.) The boys from UNCLE get caught up in a rather silly intrigue involving local marital customs: local girl Mia (Brioni Farrell) wants to marry local cop Luca (a very young Daniel J. Travanti giving a very bad performance), but custom demands that her older sister Angela (Marya Stevens) marry first — but even though Angela’s knock-down gorgeous, no local man will marry her without a dowry her father can’t afford. But Solo mentioned that Americans don’t need dowries, so that gives Mia an idea. (And yes, they refer to Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin as an “American.”) She and Luca literally force our heroes at gunpoint to play suitors to Angela, preventing them from intercepting the courier pouch they’ve just brought down. Then Col. Hubris comes looking for the pouch and it’s all kind of a mess from there, but it ends up with Solo and Illya wearing fezzes now, because fezzes are cool.

This is a really ineptly written and ineptly made episode. I couldn’t even watch it in one sitting, it was so boring. There’s a scene where our heroes are operating their robot-plane-intercepting equipment at what’s supposed to be an ancient lovers’ lane that has “X loves Y” grafitti dating back from modern times to Roman times — yet all the inscriptions that are supposedly from different centuries, in different languages, are all painted on the face of a single boulder in the same handwriting, and so large that there’s only room for the three inscriptions that our characters read out loud. It’s incredibly sloppy and thoughtless work, and exemplifies the problems with this episode and, really, with the season as a whole. They just don’t seem to be trying very hard.

The score is credited to Fried, and at least some of it seems to be new. He’s starting to sound more like his familiar self now.

“The Birds and the Bees Affair”: Solo and Illya find that UNCLE HQ in Geneva (behind a Swiss watch shop rather than the usual tailor shop) has had all its personnel wiped out by some kind of lethal insect attack, which turns out to be a special strain of killer bees engineered by THRUSH — bees which, conveniently for the special-effects department, are so small as to be effectively invisible.They’re the work of Dr. Swan (John Abbott), an entomologist whose compulsive gambling enables THRUSH operative Mozart (John McGiver) to co-opt his services in exchange for money. But they need a special variety of honey only sold at a few health-food stores, including one where Illya meets Tavia (Ahna Capri), a lovely clerk whom Mozart tries to recruit as a dance instructor at the dance studio that THRUSH operates because of course it does.  Illya somehow convinces her to infiltrate the studio, then comes in as a client to arrange a lesson with her and stupidly gives exposition about her mission in the bugged studio, leading to their capture and torture until Illya agrees to help Mozart get the bees into UNCLE’s New York HQ’s ventilation system. Illya knocks out a guard to get one of the triangular badges that are necessary to wear inside HQ to keep an alarm from sounding, yet Mozart is inexplicably able to get in without having a badge — and then just as inexplicably is wearing a badge later in the scene. UNCLE has been watching the whole time, but Mozart gets away by threatening to release the killer bees into the city; Illya’s plan is a failure. But Solo has managed to get Swan’s help to track the bees in exchange for promising to return them to him. Eventually Illya manages to redeem himself by finding a way to contain the invisible bees when Mozart releases them in the climactic fight.

This wasn’t as bad as the last one, but it wasn’t very good. Capri is lovely to look at, but her character serves little purpose beyond random damsel in distress, and she isn’t much of an actress. In the scene where she’s held captive and being threatened with torture, she shows about as much facial expression as a Vulcan. John McGiver’s urbane Mr. Mozart is fairly entertaining, although urbane, well-spoken THRUSH operatives are a well-worn cliche by this point. The score is stock from Drasnin’s library, and at one point the Oliver Nelson-esque action music I mentioned liking in “The Tigers Are Coming Affair” is oddly enough used as a bossa nova record that Illya and Tavia dance to. It’s nice to hear that cue again, but that’s an odd way to use it.

The main appeal of this episode, though, is in its opening minutes, as director Alvin Ganzer uses effectively unusual camera angles — looking down from the rafters or up from knee level — to make the scenes of the corpse-filled Geneva HQ feel unnerving and off-kilter, and also to differentiate it from the New York HQ, which of course is the exact same set.

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Oh, yeah, that Comic-Con thing

I really ought to post something about New York Comic-Con, but I’ve been too busy or too tired. I’ll try to keep it concise.

I ended up driving after all due to the cost of plane fare after waiting so long to buy tickets. I planned out my route carefully this time, so it went fairly smoothly — but I set out too early on the second day and had a hard time staying alert. I didn’t really feel recovered until after lunch. So on the way back, I think I’ll spend the morning of the second day in the motel just resting, then get a good lunch, then drive the rest of the way home.

I’ve been staying with friend and fellow author Keith R.A. DeCandido, his fiancee, a family friend, several cats, and a large Golden Retriever. I was nervous about the latter, but he’s a friendly dog and I’ve been getting used to having him around. Indeed, there’s something reassuring about knowing a dog that big is sleeping outside your bedroom door, on sentry duty as it were.

The two days I spent at the con are kind of a blur right now, so to sum up: both my signings on Friday went pretty well. The GraphicAudio booth is in a good location and drew a lot of attention from passersby, and we got to sell a number of copies of my audiobooks, along with free copies of the prose books as a bonus — courtesy of Tor in the case of Only Superhuman, plus a few Spider-Man; Drowned in Thunder copies which I provided myself. I was expecting Tor to be offering the paperback, but their giveaway copies (half of which I took over to GA, the rest of which I signed for them to give out at Tor’s booth) were hardcovers instead. I guess that makes sense — they want to use up the stock now that people will mostly be buying the MMPB. But it made it more of a slog to carry them over to the GA booth through the Comic-Con crowd. Anyway, the giveaway copies moved pretty well, I was told. My A Choice of Futures signing at the SImon & Schuster booth went well too; this time people actually came to see me specifically rather than just happening to pass by.

I got to talk with a number of colleagues — Keith, of course, and the GA people, and fellow Trek author Kevin Dilmore, who works for Hallmark and was manning their display. It was nice to catch up with him. Unfortunately my former Trek editor Marco Palmieri, now at Tor, was too busy to talk much. I also had fun meeting Lilly, a friend of Keith’s who’s a professional balloon artist, and who performed at his booth to attract passersby. It’s an interesting craft, improvisational yet requiring a lot of meticulous manual control and precision.

Today I just stayed in and rested while Keith et al. went in to the con. I needed a day of quiet to recover before undertaking the drive home tomorrow. I did go down to the local pizza place for lunch, though, and had an excellent slice of white pizza with spinach.

That’s all for now. Maybe I’ll mention more details later, if any come to mind.

Discussing my superhero novels on Sci-Fi Bulletin

October 7, 2013 1 comment

Sci-Fi Bulletin, a British genre site edited by my former Star Trek Magazine editor Paul Simpson, has just published an essay I wrote for them comparing the writing of Only Superhuman and Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder, timed to coincide with the release of the OS paperback in the UK. You can read it here:

The Science of Writing Superheroes

Oddly enough, it’s indexed on the site under “Fantasy.” I guess that’s because superheroes are generally treated as a subset of fantasy; my hard-SF approach to the subject seems to be pretty unusual, though as the article points out, sometimes there was more science in Stan Lee and his Marvel cohorts’ creations than you might think.

Only Superhuman MMPB cover    Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder audiobook

Recalling TOTAL RECALL, in total

Turner Classic Movies recently showed the 1990 Total Recall, which I haven’t seen in many years. I came to find the violence distasteful for a while, but it’s been long enough that I decided to take a fresh look. It actually holds up better than I remembered; gratuitous violence aside, it’s an effective Hitchcockian thriller that gives you some things to think about, and its visual effects were really cutting-edge stuff for the day, just before CGI started taking over everything. They had extensive computer assistance with the motion-control cameras and animatronics, but what we saw onscreen was all real physical models and puppets and conventional animation, except for the CGI “x-ray” skeletons at the subway checkpoint. And the FX really hold up extremely well; they did things with miniatures and animatronics that were on a par with a lot of modern CG. Plus it has a strong Jerry Goldsmith score and a number of notable ’90s actors in the cast.

Although I can’t say the designs hold up as well. It’s hilarious to me how people in the ’90s assumed that telephones would get bigger in the future. In this movie, Back to the Future Part II, and “Lisa’s Wedding” on The Simpsons, futuristic phones were these massive wall- or table-mounted units with screens and elaborate controls. And the playback unit for Hauser’s message to Quaid was this big briefcase. And this is supposed to be 71 years from now, IIRC.

Of course, the big question in this film is, are Quaid’s experiences real or hallucinated? Here are my thoughts (beware full spoilers):

I prefer to think it’s all a delusion. For one thing, the depiction of Mars is completely absurd, as is much of the storyline. The whole ice-core/instant-atmosphere thing is totally insane. A rocky planet with an icy core is like a boulder floating on a lake. It just couldn’t happen. Also, everything is foreshadowed. Not only does everything in the film happen exactly as the Rekall personnel predict, but we see Melina’s face and the alien reactor on Rekall’s screens as they’re programming the simulation.

The main argument against this position is that we see scenes that aren’t from Quaid’s POV, and thus couldn’t be part of a memory-implant illusion. But to me, the key is what Roy Brocksmith’s character tells Quaid in the hotel room: that what he’s experiencing isn’t the programmed vacation package, but a free-form delusion his mind is manufacturing based on that implant. So if he’s suffering a paranoid delusion, then the scenes that take place in Quaid’s absence could represent what his paranoid mind believes is going on behind his back — his wife betraying him, a murderous enemy pursuing him and being given marching orders by the dictator of Mars, etc.

The tricky part there is the scene in Rekall where McClane is alerted to the crisis and is told by his assistant that she hasn’t begun the spy implant yet. If Quaid doesn’t remember this afterward, how can it be part of his implant? It’s possible that it only mostly happened, that what we saw was partly filtered through his psychosis, so the assistant didn’t really say she hadn’t implanted the spy program. Or maybe it was all part of his delusion. Dreams often contradict themselves, so experiencing something and then not remembering it, or acting as though one doesn’t remember it, is something that could happen in a dream or delusion.

The remaining paradox is how he could’ve seen Melina’s face in his dreams before selecting it at Rekall, if she wasn’t real. But our memories of our dreams are imperfect, and we can edit them in retrospect. Maybe the face he saw in his dreams was just similar to the one he selected at Rekall and he convinced himself it was the same. Or maybe she was a live model whose face he’d seen in ads and who’d also licensed her likeness to Rekall.

Now, does the alternative interpretation work? Setting aside the inanity of the science and the absurdity of the action and plotting, is there any way this could all be real? The hangup there is what we saw at Rekall before the implant. How could they have an image of Melina and classified imagery of the Martian reactor? I wondered if maybe that was part of the plan to trigger Hauser’s memories so he’d go after Kuato, but then I remembered Cohaagen saying that Quaid had screwed up the plan by going to Rekall and triggering his memories prematurely. So that doesn’t work. As for the imagery, maybe someone smuggled out images of the reactor but they were discredited and publicly interpreted as a hoax, and Rekall just copied them off the internet. And maybe Melina did some modeling once upon a time?

Either way, it’s a bit of a stretch, but I think it’s less of a stretch all around to assume it was imaginary — that this wasn’t a story of a hero saving Mars, but just a tragedy of an ordinary(ish) construction worker suffering a Rekall-induced psychotic break from which he probably never recovered. Which is pretty dark, but it seems more likely to be the truth. Although it does leave the lingering question of why Quaid got so obsessed with Mars and this dream woman. But I guess he could’ve just been tired of his life and experiencing the seven-year itch a year late.

Granted, the whole point is that there is no obvious right answer to whether it’s real or imagined, and either interpretation has its problems. But I have my preference, so there it is.

Now, yesterday I came across the DVD of the 2012 remake of the film (directed by Len Wiseman, starring Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale) at the library, so I decided, what the heck, it’s free, so I’ll watch and compare. I tried to assess the film on its own merits, but it’s hard to avoid comparing it to the original. There are some things about it that were good. There was some nice dialogue writing here and there, mainly in the first act. They did make a respectable effort to create their own distinct world rather than just copying the original. There were some good performances; Farrell was better than in other films of his I’d seen, Beckinsale was pretty effective with what she was given, and John Cho was great and almost unrecognizable as a reimagined McClane. And there was some nifty technological futurism, like the hand-implant phones and the display glass they interfaced with.

But a lot about the film falls short, both as a self-contained film and in comparison to the original. The ’90 film had plenty of action, but it always felt like it was advancing the story. Here, it often felt like the story was just connective tissue between action set pieces. They were impressive at first, but after a while all the chasing and fighting and fighting and chasing got a bit tiresome. The point where the film lost me was the sequence running through the elevator shafts with elevator cars zooming by in all directions at ridiculous speeds, in this bizarrely overcomplicated network of tunnels and huge open spaces. What building were they in? Why did they need all these elevators zooming around? The scene reminded me of nothing so much as the scene in Galaxy Quest where they had to go through the corridor with all the gratuitous deathtraps and Gwen screamed, “This episode was badly written!”

I’d like to say more about the film’s merits or flaws in its own right, but it’s hard to do that without comparing it to its predecessor and talking about where the remake falls short. A major difference is that, in contrast to the pervasive ambiguity of the original, here there’s very little doubt that what Quaid is experiencing is entirely real. Quaid’s initial dream is too detailed and much less surreal than the opening scene of the original; if you came into the story without having seen the original, I think it would be clear right off the bat that it was a memory this man had somehow lost. Also, Beckinsale’s Lori kind of gives herself away when she asks unprompted if Quaid was alone in his “dream.” Many of the key plot points and characters, notably Hauser himself, are set up in news reports before Quaid goes to Rekall, so it’s less plausible that they could be parts of an implant (although I guess they could be integrated into a paranoid delusion). Most significantly, there’s no break between Quaid going to Rekall and Quaid turning into superspy. There’s no scene break and no loss of consciousness, no moment that could be seen as a transition between reality and fantasy, so there’s no reason to doubt that it’s real.

Later on, they do a version of the scene where someone tries to convince Quaid he’s dreaming, and in principle I like the idea of putting Quaid’s friend Harry into this role. But it doesn’t quite work, and the reasons it doesn’t work expose the problems with how the remake was done. The film pays homage to the iconic moments of the original, but changes them around in a way that doesn’t make much sense. In the original scene, what tipped Quaid off that the doctor was lying was the fact that he was sweating. The logic there is self-evident to the viewer: if none of this were real, he’d have no reason to be frightened about being at gunpoint. Here, though, what makes Quaid’s decision is a single tear running down Melina’s cheek. Why does this clarify the situation for him? Why would it prove she’s real and not a delusion? If she’s a delusion, she’d do whatever he imagined and there’d be no self-contradiction. (It doesn’t help that Jessica Biel’s Melina is a complete cipher. We never get a sense of who she is or what she and Quaid shared; she’s just a plot device and a token romantic interest. I don’t think her name is even spoken more than once, and it’s mumbled then. If I hadn’t seen the original and hadn’t read the credits online, I think I would’ve come out of this movie with no idea what her character was called.) Moreover, even if he concluded this were real, would that lead him to shoot his best friend in the head? How would he have known his friend was really a spy, rather than a dupe who’d been convinced or coerced to play along? It seems like an overreaction.

Not to mention that there’s one part where Harry moves in an impossibly fast blur to take Melina’s gun. How can that be reconciled with the conclusion that this was real? It’s the one and only thing in this version of the story that ever calls the reality of events into question, but it’s isolated and at odds with the very scene it’s in, so it doesn’t work. It’s just a random bit of weirdness.

Basically, things happen in this scene not because they make sense within the scene, but because they’re the way things played out in the original. The changes make those outcomes less coherent, but the outcomes remain. When you remake a story, you should make changes that bring out something new in it, but these changes were too superficial, and there was too much slavish adherence to the beats of the original at times when there shouldn’t be.

I like the idea of combining Lori with Richter, basically combining Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside’s characters into Beckinsale’s. It makes Lori a stronger presence in the film. But the downside is that her motivation for issuing the shoot-on-sight order in defiance of Cohaagen’s command that he be taken alive is unclear. Again, they’re keeping the original’s beats but changing things in a way that diminishes their story and character logic.

Now, let’s talk about The Fall. This tunnel through the Earth is the main thing that’s been criticized for its absurdity, but in theory it’s not that implausible an idea. The engineering problems are insurmountable — no way to keep a tunnel open through molten magma under such pressures — but the physics are pretty straightforward. Martin Gardner did a nice analysis of the idea in an essay called “Tube Through the Earth” that appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in Dec. ’80 and was reprinted in the 1981 book Science Fiction Puzzle Tales (reprinted in 2001 as Mathematical Puzzle Tales). Essentially it’s got the physics of a pendulum — it gains momentum as it falls under the influence of gravity, and that momentum lets it rise against gravity by an equal distance, minus any loss due to friction. The travel time from one end to the other will always be 42 minutes (ignoring friction, air resistance, Coriolis effect, etc.), regardless of whether the elevator connects antipodes through the center of the Earth or simply cuts a chord between two random locations — in the same way that the period of a given pendulum is the same regardless of the width of its swing. (Interestingly, the orbital period of a satellite orbiting just above the surface of a perfectly spherical, airless Earth would be 84 minutes. Again, basically the same physics — orbiting is driven by gravity just as the Fall or a pendulum would be.)

Unfortunately, the movie’s portrayal of this idea is totally ridiculous. The Fall takes only 17 minutes to get through the Earth, and the behavior of thrust and gravity within it is total nonsense. Even though they’d have to be accelerating far faster than free fall to make it in that time, they’re right-side-up during the descent rather than pressed against the ceiling. They’re in full gravity until they cross into “the core,” when they’re suddenly in zero gravity like a switch was flipped. And inexplicably, the chambers within the capsule seem to be facing the same way up after the freefall passage as they did before. If we’re talking a tube going straight through a tunnel piercing the Earth, then the bottom end when it was dropped from the UK would be the top end when it emerged in Australia. So the capsule would have to rotate a full 180 degrees within the tunnel, but this is never depicted as happening. (EDIT: Actually we do see the passenger compartment rotate midway through the journey, so that’s explained. But other parts of the capsule, the interior corridors and the big open space where the heroes fight the robots, don’t seem to rotate or to be symmetrical top-to-bottom, so it’s unclear whether they invert.) So this was just gotten totally wrong in every possible way.

Now, sure, as I said, the “icy core of Mars” and instant atmosphere of the original were just as scientifically ridiculous, but at least you could believe it was a dream — and it was epic enough that you wanted to buy into it at least for the duration of the story. Fantasy or no, the original Quaid’s adventure ended with him transforming an entire world for the better, turning a barely habitable wasteland into an unspoiled paradise. Not to mention that we got to know the people whose lives were in danger in the climax, so we had an emotional investment in the outcome. Here, Quaid only manages to keep things from getting worse — perhaps only temporarily at that. The Colony is spared from conquest, but it’s still an impoverished mega-favela in the middle of a toxic wasteland, and there’s no guarantee the UFB is going to respond very well to the fact that its agents killed their leader. And none of the Colony characters we get acquainted with in the first act is present to react to events in the third, so that emotional investment is missing. So the ending just doesn’t have as much of an impact. The emotion is “Whew, our life still sucks but at least we’re not dead.” Not very triumphant.

So yeah, it’s good to bring something new to a story when you remake it, but ideally the new stuff should work as well in its own way as the old stuff. Here it just seems underwhelming in comparison. They were trying to tell basically the same plot as the original but with a lot cut out and moved around and replaced, but what they were left with was somewhat incomplete and skeletal. Maybe what they should’ve done instead was make a cleaner break from the previous film — gone back to the original Philip K. Dick story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” and just spun an entirely new narrative from that without referencing the Schwarzenegger film at all. You could say — if you felt obligated to finish with a pithy quip, which apparently I do — that the problem with the new Total Recall is that it recalls too much.

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