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Revisiting YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (spoilers)

September 24, 2017 1 comment

I decided to check Barry Levinson’s 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes out of the library, partly because of my recent watch-through of the Basil Rathbone Holmes series, but mainly because I recently re-listened to my LP of Bruce Broughton’s terrific score for the film, which used to be one of my favorite and most often played LPs. (Yes, I still have a phonograph and a small collection of LPs that I haven’t yet replaced with CDs. But I only occasionally get around to listening to them.) I remembered having a moderately positive opinion of the film, though a lot of that was no doubt due to the score. I’m afraid my revisit left me somewhat underwhelmed.

Levinson is known for dramas like Diner, The Natural, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Rain Man, but Young Sherlock Holmes was his venture into more fantastic ’80s blockbuster territory, in a film produced by Steven Spielberg and written by future Home Alone/Harry Potter director Chris Columbus. The film (whose opening titles directly homage the Rathbone series) postulates that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson first met at a London boarding school in their adolescence — something that a caption at the end of the film admits is merely an extracanonical speculation, since the filmmakers didn’t wish to offend Holmes purists. It’s just as well, though, since there’s a lot about the movie that doesn’t really fit that well with Holmes canon, either factually or stylistically.

Holmes is played by Nicholas Rowe, a narrow-faced, sleepy-eyed actor who looks more like a young Tom Baker than a young Holmes (although Baker played Holmes in a 1982 Hound of the Baskervilles miniseries, his first post-Doctor Who role). Rowe is a bit too understated in the role, but reasonably effective considering he was around 18 at the time. Watson is played by Alan Cox (then about 15 years old), who’s okay but doesn’t make a huge impression. This Watson is pretty much in the Nigel Bruce vein, a relatively slow-witted comic-relief figure (albeit the same age as Holmes instead of significantly older) — indeed, Holmes calls him quite harsh things like “buffoon” on occasion, even though their interaction is played as friendly. But Watson does get a couple of moments to shine — one point where he devises a clever if contrived way to save Holmes from a fire and stop the villain’s escape at the same time, and a bit at the end where he finally solves a riddle Holmes posed early in the movie.

The charming Sophie Ward (2 years Rowe’s senior) plays Holmes’s love interest Elizabeth — since this Holmes is more open and emotional than he became later in life, and the film purports to explore what events caused him to close off. Elizabeth’s uncle (or guardian?) is the eccentric Professor Waxflatter, a mentor of Holmes who’s established to be the source of his deerstalker cap and the “Elementary, my dear ___” catchphrase used by most prior cinematic versions of Holmes. He’s also a rather goofy character who keeps trying to invent a working ornithopter, one of the primary sources of Spielberg-style visual spectacle in the film. Even granting that this was a film largely aimed at young viewers, giving Holmes a mentor figure this cartoonish seems incongruous. And perhaps redundant, since Holmes has a second mentor in fencing instructor Rathe (Anthony Higgins), who’s his intellectual match and urges him not to give into his emotions so much.

The other source of visual spectacle comes from the villains, the Cult of Rame Tep, who use blowgun darts to inject their victims with hallucinogens that give them terrifying visions that drive them to their deaths. The visions are the primary visual-effects sequences in the film, generally using puppetry and stop-motion animation to create the horrific creatures the victims envision — yet the film is notable for featuring the first ever use of computer animation to create a photorealistic motion picture character, more or less, when a priest hallucinates a stained-glass knight coming to life and trying to kill him. The digital animation was done by a division of Lucasfilm known as Pixar, under the supervision of an animator named John Lasseter. You might have heard of one or two later things they did.

I suppose the hallucinogen gimmick was a reasonable way to include fantasy FX sequences in a Sherlock Holmes movie without breaking its reality, but in execution it doesn’t really work. The idea is supposed to be that the victims are all scared to death, basically, but they keep dying in rather contrived and implausible ways. The first victim jumps out a window when he thinks his room is on fire — okay. But the second, the priest, just runs out into a mostly empty road and just happens to run right in front of the single oncoming carriage at just the right moment to get trampled. And when Waxflatter hallucinates monsters attacking him and climbing inside his waistcoat, he just happens to be in a shop containing large knives and picks up one to stab himself in the chest. Seriously? This seems like a very unreliable form of murder. There’s no way to predict what will be hallucinated or how the person will respond. Any of them could’ve been spared by luck — say, if the priest had run out into the road ten seconds earlier or later. There’s a bit where Detective Sergeant Lestrade (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) accidentally pokes himself with a poison thorn Holmes has recovered, then later reports that the men of Scotland Yard had to stop him from hanging himself. Okay, why would hallucinating a terrifying attack drive him to attempt hanging himself? The implication was that the drug made one suicidal, but then shouldn’t it evoke despair rather than terror?

Also, how come nobody who’s hit by one of the thorns is aware of the fact? We see in the Lestrade scene that Holmes has recovered several thorns that are of easily visible size — presumably the ones that the cultists had hit him, Watson, and Elizabeth with in an earlier sequence. So how come none of the other victims finds the thorn upon slapping a hand to their neck? There’s even a scene later on where another victim is struck by a thorn while Holmes watches and dismisses it as just an insect bite, with Holmes unbelievably failing to notice what really happened.

Still, the sequence where Holmes is struck by a thorn is one of the most interesting, since his hallucination involves his father’s rejection and his mother’s grief after his inquisitive nature uncovered his father’s compromising secret, implicitly an affair. It seems more an actual source of guilt than a conjectural fear, and it makes me think we’re missing a more interesting story about Holmes’s childhood than the one we’re getting. Meanwhile, poor Watson just gets a comedy hallucination where cartoonish, anthropomorphic stop-motion pastries force him to eat them, which — what? Not very revealing.

The other big source of spectacle comes from the fact that the cultists have built an underground faux pyramid/temple in London, where they do a bunch of chanting and sacrifice young women for nebulous reasons. The Rame Tep chant is the musical highlight of the film for me, a potent pastiche of Orff’s Carmina Burana with an Egyptian twist. But the cultist angle is kind of silly, particularly the cult’s main assassin, the school nurse who turns out to be a shaven-headed female cultist (Susan Fleetwood). Rathe turns out to be the cult’s leader, a half-English Egyptian named Eh-tar (Rathe backward) seeking revenge on the men who desecrated his cult’s temple and called in British troops that destroyed his parents’ village. (American movies and TV shows have a bad habit of assuming that Egypt is still full of cults worshipping the ancient gods, even though it’s been a Muslim country for nearly 1400 years.)

The movie climaxes with a battle between Holmes and Rathe in a location that I’ve only now realized is meant to be the docks along the frozen River Thames. I knew it was an iced-over body of water, but I never knew where it was supposed to be before. I guess I owe it to Doctor Who: “Thin Ice” for depicting the frozen Thames and giving me the context I’d been missing. Rathe is defeated and seemingly dies below the ice, but not before he shoots and fatally wounds Elizabeth, the tragedy that supposedly turned Holmes into a solitary, closed-off adult with no interest in women. It’s a classic fridging that doesn’t hold up well today, a female lead being created specifically so that she can die to motivate the male hero. And in light of more modern portrayals of Holmes and insights into the autistic spectrum, it seems naive to assume that there would need to be an instigating event to explain why Holmes acted the way he did, something that changed him from a more “normal” way of acting. At the time, it wasn’t an unreasonable idea, I suppose. But it feels like a relic of an earlier era.

Indeed, this film came out just months after the end of the first series of Granada Television’s landmark Holmes adaptations starring Jeremy Brett, which were notable for being more faithful to the original canon than most prior screen adaptations and downplaying or avoiding a lot of the standard screen tropes like the deerstalker, “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary,” and most of all the characterization of Watson as a buffoon. Yet Young Sherlock Holmes gleefully embraced all those tropes. Which might’ve been fine if it had come out a year or two earlier, but in the wake of the Brett series, it must have felt like a throwback as soon as it came out.

The end of the film is a bit notable for having a post-credits tag scene, something less common then than today, although they set it up by having film footage continue under the entire end credits. The tag, perhaps predictably, is that Rathe has survived and signs his name in a hotel ledger as “Moriarty.” I guess it had to happen, given how determined the movie was to explain the origin of everything else in Holmes canon.

All in all, a watchable film with a decent cast and good production values, but conceptually somewhat weak and trying a bit too hard to turn Sherlock Holmes into something in the vein of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies. It might be worthy of curiosity for foreshadowing Chris Columbus’s involvement with the Harry Potter franchise, since there are similarities in the English boarding school setting and the focus on a lead trio of two boys and a girl. But that’s kind of a tenuous link, and surely coincidental. Anyway, I feel the Potter films Columbus directed are by far the weakest and most prosaic in the franchise, so I’m not surprised to find his writing rather underwhelming as well. Still, I strongly recommend Bruce Broughton’s soundtrack.

Whatever the flaws in Young Sherlock Holmes, it was always my hope that one day we’d get to see the grown-up Rowe and Cox reunite as Holmes and Watson, whether in a Spielberg-produced sequel to YSH or just some other Holmes production. I gather this almost happened a few years ago with a low-budget production called Sherlock Holmes vs. Frankenstein, but apparently the crowdfunded film has not actually been completed yet and the plan to cast Rowe and Cox fell through. Rowe did, however, make a brief cameo in the Ian McKellen film Mr. Holmes, playing a cinematic version of Holmes that the elderly genuine article watched in the theater. And Rowe and Cox are currently around 51 and 47 respectively, around the ages that Rathbone and Bruce would’ve been in the first couple of years of the Universal series (yes, Bruce was actually a few years younger than Rathbone, though he looked much older). So maybe it could still happen someday.

Ars Technica interviewed me on STAR TREK transporters

September 23, 2017 5 comments

You may recall that last year, Xaq Rzetelny of the science site Ars Technica interviewed me about Star Trek temporal physics. Well, Xaq recently came across my 2011 post “On quantum teleportation and continuity of self,” and sought my input for an article tackling the same basic question for Star Trek transporters — whether or not the person who comes out of the transporter is the same one who went in. It’s a detailed and well-researched piece that also contains comments from folks like Michael Okuda and Lawrence Krauss, and you can read it here:

Is beaming down in Star Trek a death sentence?

Thoughts on Legendary’s KONG: SKULL ISLAND (spoilers)

September 18, 2017 4 comments

It’s taken me a while to get around to reviewing Kong: Skull Island, the second film in Legendary Pictures’ “MonsterVerse” following the 2014 Godzilla. I haven’t been able to afford the luxury of seeing many movies lately, so I had to get it from the library, and there was a long waiting list. But it finally arrived, so now I can add it to my kaiju review series. (On that note, if you enjoy my reviews, please consider making a donation with the PayPal Donate button to your right.)

Although this film is set in a Godzilla universe, its links to Godzilla are peripheral. The monster-seeking organization Monarch returns, but at an earlier stage in its history — the film is set in 1973, aside from a prologue set in 1944 — and though its main agent in this film, Bill Randa (John Goodman), makes a passing reference to the Marshall Island nuclear “tests” in 1954 that we know were aimed at Godzilla (in this continuity), his own motivation for seeking giant monsters dates back to a ship disaster he survived in 1943. There are a few other references (discussed below), but aside from a post-credit scene setting up the next Godzilla movie, they’re subtle enough that you could watch this film without ever realizing that it connected to any other film. Which is a good way to do a shared universe.

Anyway, it’s the end of the Vietnam War and Randa fears Monarch will lose funding in peacetime, so he organizes an expedition to Skull Island, spoken of in legend but only just confirmed by satellites to exist, in a last-ditch effort to prove monsters are real. (This is a point where the loose continuity is maybe a bit too loose — if Monarch and the US military cooperated in attacking Godzilla in ’54, doesn’t that mean they already know monsters are real? Is this trip really necessary?) He ropes in a military escort led by Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s bitter about leaving the war unwon but cares deeply for his men, as well as James Conrad, an ex-RAF expert tracker (Tom Hiddleston). Award-winning photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) tags along to document what she and most of the others believe to be a geological survey of the island.

While Godzilla 2014 was justifiably criticized for its fairly superficial and unengaging characters, it seems K:SI took those criticisms to heart, because its first act is all about establishing character, developing its large and rich cast through plenty of fun interplay and banter. Hiddleston’s Conrad is introduced as a world-weary cynic but ends up as a rather generic competent and heroic type for most of the film; but there are plenty of other colorful personalities. The film also does a nice job creating a sense of the period, largely through heavy use of ’60s and ’70s rock songs and extensive visual and stylistic homages to Apocalypse Now. We get to know and like the characters quickly, which makes it more effective when the expedition’s choppers, in the process of dropping “seismic” charges onto the island with blithe disregard for the local fauna, attract the attention of the local mega-megafauna, namely Kong, who smashes their choppers up quite thoroughly and leaves the survivors scattered across the island. Packard now has a clear enemy to fight and multiple dead soldiers to avenge, and he’s ready to shoot Randa for leading them into this — it’s clear that the “seismic survey” was meant to flush out the beast — until Randa explains that there are far more monsters living in the hollow spaces under the Earth and they must be proven to exist so that they can be stopped before they devastate the world. Now Packard has both men to avenge and a country to defend, and he’s determined that Kong must die. This time, he thinks, there’s no question who the enemy is.

But elsewhere, Conrad, Weaver, and their group of survivors find a village of islanders, among whom lives Marlow (John C. Reilly), an American fighter pilot downed on Skull Island in 1944. Though he’s grown quite eccentric over the years on the island, he interprets for the Iwi islanders (even though they don’t speak on camera) and explains that Kong is the island’s “King,” defending the Iwi and most of the other animals of the island (including various kaiju species like a bamboo-legged spider and an amphibious giant mammal called a Sker Buffalo) from the Skullcrawlers, two-legged giant reptiles with skull-like, beaked heads. They live in the underground spaces that Skull Island provides access to, and Kong is the only line of defense against the largest of them. Weaver sees proof of Kong’s benevolence when she tries to save a Sker Buffalo trapped under a downed helicopter only for Kong to arrive and free it — and perhaps he recognizes her benevolence too. But then, Kong always did have an eye for the ladies.

So naturally this leads to a conflict between Conrad’s group wanting to protect Kong and Packard wanting to kill him. But even though Packard does go kind of Captain Ahab and is implacably obsessed with vengeance, his motivations are still understandable, even sympathetic. He goes too far in the end, but we can understand how he got there and thus forgive him for it. It’s a really deft bit of characterization.

But the conflict of Packard and Kong must ultimately give way to the climactic fight between Kong and the ultimate Skullcrawler, known in publicity as the Skull Devil. It’s a brutal, lengthy battle, very creatively choreographed and well-animated, and the human protagonists get in on the fight and help Kong — notably Weaver, whose fearlessness gets her a little too close to the action and gets her in trouble, requiring Kong to save her (although she’s been proactive enough throughout the movie and contributed enough to the fight that she doesn’t feel like a damsel in distress). I’d say it’s a better climactic battle than the one in Godzilla 2014, and does a better job of integrating the kaiju and human characters. Although it makes sense that a fellow primate like Kong would be more prone to bond with humans than a prehistoric reptile like Godzilla.

All in all, I liked this movie quite a bit. It’s effectively written and directed, it has strong characterization and a talented cast, and its action is creative and well-handled. It manages to evoke a lot of elements of the original film’s Skull Island sequence while also making them fresh and avoiding the cliches like Kong being taken captive or fighting off aircraft atop a skyscraper. (There is a sequence where he ends up chained in a somewhat contrived way and must break free, but I only just now realized that it was an homage.) And it works better as its own entity than a lot of franchise-building films these days. I’m hard-pressed to think of anything about it that doesn’t work, aside from the prologue maybe revealing a bit too much of Kong too soon, and the post-credits tag scene setting up 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters being a bit tonally jarring and unnecessary. Even though the tag features Conrad, Weaver, and the surviving Monarch characters who recruit them, it doesn’t feel like a part of this film — and it seems extraneous as a setup for G:KotM, since that would presumably be set in the present day, 46 years later, so it’s unlikely that any of these characters would be involved.

Even the portrayal of the Iwi tribe isn’t bad, at least not compared to prior Kong movies. Rather than superstitious savages, the Iwi are portrayed as a dignified, intelligent, and artistic people that extend hospitality to Marlow and the other refugees — although they’re still treated as exotic and voiceless, so it’s not perfect.

I said the film doesn’t dwell too much on setting up future films, at least not in a way that intrudes on the story it has to tell, but there are ideas relevant to its story that do a lot to flesh out the Legendary MonsterVerse (as I guess we’re stuck with calling it). G2014 established that ancient monsters were still lurking about somewhere, maybe deep underground, but K:SI clarifies that the Earth of this reality has large subterranean hollow areas where the kaiju live, with Skull Island being one of their access points to the surface (which I realized could perhaps explain the perpetual wall of storms circling the island — something to do with the pressure and thermal effects of a really deep hole to the Earth’s interior). Interestingly, that’s an idea that was considered for an abandoned third Godzilla film back in 1956, an incredibly bizarre premise called Bride of Godzilla, which would’ve involved a scientist building a giant naked robot double of his own daughter and using it to seduce Godzilla, yes, seriously. I sincerely doubt anything like that will happen in the MonsterVerse, though. But the “Hollow Earth” established here sets the stage for the emergence of as many monsters as Legendary needs for future films. I can even imagine a future time when Monarch uses Skull Island as the equivalent of the original Monster Island from the Showa series, an enclave where kaiju can live cut off from the rest of the world. Although Kong might have something to say about that.

Oh yeah, about Kong — in this movie, he’s apparently 31.6 meters tall according to official sources. That’s a bit over twice the height of the 1933 Kong and more than four times the height of Peter Jackson’s 2005 version, but only 2/3 his height in Toho’s King Kong vs. Godzilla. But the MonsterVerse’s Godzilla, aka LegendaryGoji, is over 108 meters, 3.4 times Kong’s height herein. But I guess that’s why K:SI has Marlow establish that Kong is “still growing.” Even so, it’s hard to see him tripling his height in less than 50 years. But I guess we’ll see when Godzilla vs. Kong arrives in 2020.

Musings on “Abductive Reasoning” and universes (mild spoilers)

I had an interesting thought last night about my newly published story in Analog, “Abductive Reasoning.” I’ve been assuming all along that AR was in its own self-contained universe, unconnected to any of my other “written worlds.” As I mentioned once before, there’s no specific reason it couldn’t theoretically share a universe with my other standalone story, “No Dominion,” but there’s no reason they should be connected either, since they’re rather different in tone and focus. It can’t be set in the Only Superhuman universe (as ISFDb calls my default continuity), since that universe includes a faster-than-light drive technology, the warp cage, while the protagonist of AR travels with her consciousness encoded on a biochip in a palm-sized “wafer ship” that travels at high sublight speed using vacuum-energy sails and takes millennia to cross significant galactic distances. If the technology for warp propulsion were possible in AR’s universe, surely its Galactic Coalition would’ve discovered it long ago. Plus, the existence of that Coalition is incompatible with the galactic history and politics I’ve developed in my main universe.

I assumed the same arguments would apply to the universe of my Hub stories, the other comedy tales I’ve done for Analog. As works of science fiction humor, they could potentially go together, but the Hub universe also includes a form of faster-than-light travel, the Hub itself, plus the Hub Network that’s grown up around it and encompasses nine different galaxies, including much of the Milky Way. It seemed obvious that the Hub Network and the Galactic Coalition couldn’t exist in the same reality without being aware of each other, and if the GC knew about the Hub, then surely they’d use it instead of taking centuries to traverse the stars in wafer ships, right?

But last night I started to wonder if that was really the case. The GC’s citizens, or at least those like “Abductive Reasoning”‘s protagonist Cjek’darrit, are effectively immortal in biochip form, and presumably can place their minds in a dormant state for most of a lengthy interstellar journey. Culturally, they might be satisfied with the slowness of sublight travel despite being aware of an instantaneous alternative. Maybe they don’t even get along with the Hub Network; maybe there’s some political, ideological, or economic reason that they refuse to associate with the Network or vice-versa. Still, those seem like feeble justifications.

Then it occurred to me that the key to viable two-way Hub travel is the use of quantelopes — the bioengineered animals that communicate through quantum entanglement, the only way a ship can send a signal to the Hub to call for the opening of the nearest known Hubpoint. So ships using the Hub Network need to be large enough to carry at least one or two rabbit-sized animals and their cryogenic life-support tank. A wafer ship therefore couldn’t use the Hub! Except, hang on, the Coalition’s member species are (at least in Cjek’s case) born as organic beings and live that way in nanofabricated bodies when they’re on planets. So they don’t need to use wafer ships exclusively. They could use regular spaceships and Hub travel if they were aware of the Hub’s existence. So that doesn’t explain it.

But that leads to the next possibility: What if the Galactic Coalition and the Hub Network simply aren’t aware of each other yet? The Hub isn’t like warp cages. It isn’t a technology that could be theorized and invented; it’s unique, a physical property of the galaxy’s center of mass. If you hadn’t had the good fortune of some Network scout discovering a Hubpoint near your star system, you’d have no way of knowing it existed. So in theory, a large interstellar civilization adapted to use slower-than-light travel could share the galaxy with the Hub Network without the two having encountered each other yet. It’s a big galaxy with hundreds of billions of star systems, after all. Statistically, it’s at least possible. Although AR implies that the Coalition is extremely ancient and pervasive, so it might be hard for them to miss each other.

Then it struck me — the Hub Network is not ancient, certainly not on the same scale. “Home is Where the Hub Is” establishes that the Hub was discovered by the Dosperhag only 16,000 years ago, making the Network at least several centuries younger than that. But AR says that Cjek’s “creche-mates only reconverged at the home star once every few hundred galactic microrotations.” A galactic rotation, at least at Earth’s distance from the center, takes about 250 million years, so a hundred microrotations is 25,000 years. So journeys through the Coalition take tens of millennia at high sublight speeds, meaning that new information transmitted at the speed of light would take a similar amount of time to propagate. If the Hub Network is about 16,000 years old, then the odds are that contact with the GC would’ve most likely happened somewhere near the middle of that span, say around 8 millennia ago give or take — except the Hub has grown in size and activity over time, which would make contact statistically more likely to have occurred in the latter half of that span. So it’s reasonably likely that if the two civilizations have made contact, it was only within the past few millennia. And since it takes tens of millennia for new information to cross the entire Coalition, that news might not yet have spread far enough to reach any world Cjek’darrit has visited lately. So it could work.

Although… wait, hold the phone. There’s the other side of the question to consider. The Network may only be 15-16,000 years old, but the Hub, as I said, is an intrinsic property of the galaxy, so it’s been there for 13-odd billion years. If the Coalition existed in the Hub universe, and has been traveling the galaxy for hundreds of thousands of years at least, then it’s quite possible they — or one of the multiple starfaring civilizations that came together to form them — would’ve discovered the Hub long before the Dosperhag did. I’ve established that the Hub is a radiation source, constantly emitting EM radiation and signals that leak through from every point in the greater galaxy. It’s not an especially intense emitter, since ships can safely pass through it on a routine basis, but it would emit a rather unique radiation signature that could be detected from a distance if it weren’t yet encased in the Shell that the Dosperhag had built around it. So Coalition wafer ships or microsail probes passing near that region of space could well have discovered it on their own long ago.

So… okay. It’s theoretically possible that “Abductive Reasoning” takes place in the Hub universe. It isn’t conclusively ruled out by the stories to date. And there’s certainly some appeal to the idea of putting all my SF comedy stories in a shared reality. So last night, I thought it was a reasonable idea, but after sleeping on it, I have to say it seems unlikely — and probably undesirable. Having the Galactic Coalition unaware of the Hub Network would not be out of the question, but it would require imposing significant constraints on the GC’s age, spread, and knowledge of the galaxy, constraints that don’t quite fit with what I implied in the story and that would limit my options if I wanted to write more stories in that setting. Having the GC know about the Hub, either through contact with the Network or through prior discovery, and nonetheless choose not to take advantage of its convenience would require making some rather arbitrary and limiting assumptions about their culture or politics. It could potentially happen; for all I know, I could come up with a story idea about the two civilizations interacting, and then I’d have reason to tweak things to fit. It’s nice to know I at least have that option. But it doesn’t really feel right to treat them as the same universe without good reason. I didn’t conceive them that way, so they don’t naturally mesh without a fair amount of contrivance. I could change my mind in the future, but for now, better to let them stand as their own entities. (This is why I prefer to develop unified continuities from the start, rather than grafting separate stories together after the fact.)

And that’s fine. It would’ve been fun to discover an unexpected opportunity to merge the universes, but on the other hand, I liked writing a story set in a universe without FTL, without the usual kind of spaceship. I like it that this little comedy story is perhaps my most scientifically plausible, cutting-edge depiction of interstellar travel yet. And if I do more with the setting, I’d probably prefer to embrace the things that make it different from my other universes.

Still, it would be perfectly fine with me if everyone reading this post went out and bought copies of the Sep/Oct 2017 Analog and the eBook collection Hub Space: Tales from the Greater Galaxy (just follow the above links, then follow the ordering links of your choice therein), if you don’t have them already, so you can compare the universes and decide for yourselves. Because people buying my stuff is good.

Thoughts on LIFE (the 2017 film, not, y’know, the general state of existence) (spoilers)

After growing up with countless sci-fi films and TV shows that totally ignored the fact that the “sci” was short for “science,” I’ve been quite pleased with the trend in recent years to make more movies that are grounded in plausible science, such as Gravity, Europa Report, Interstellar, and The Martian. The movie Life, directed by Daniel Espinoza and written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, is the latest entry in the hard-science movie trend, and is mostly quite impressive. It’s set on the International Space Station in the near future (very near, since a character played by 36-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal reminisces about being taken out of school on the day of the Challenger disaster 31 years ago), with its 6-person international crew studying a single-celled life form brought back by a Mars sample probe. Dubbed “Calvin,” the Martian organism quickly grows into a multicellular colony creature of great adaptability, and when things inevitably go wrong, the creature breaks out and it becomes a horror movie.

The science and realism in Life are top-notch. Espinoza and his team consulted with scientists and space experts to make the ISS environment as realistic as possible. It’s quite remarkable — like Gravity, it’s set almost entirely in free fall, but with six actors instead of two and with much more time spent in shirtsleeve environments within the ISS rather than in spacesuits. And the simulation of free fall is quite good. There are a couple of moments here and there where body parts or worn/held items sag downward, but mostly it’s very convincing. The filmmakers studied real ISS footage and consulted with astronauts, and the stunt team and actors worked out a very convincing replication of the real thing, more casual and natural than the stock “move very slowly” approach to weightlessness we’ve seen in countless movies before. It makes for a very novel and engaging viewing experience. The Calvin creature is also quite a creative design, convincingly unlike anything on Earth (well, almost anything — apparently the designers were inspired by slime mold colonies to an extent). And for the most part, it doesn’t really feel like a horror movie with a fanciful monster. It’s so grounded that it just feels like a drama about scientists dealing with an animal (albeit an alien one) that’s gotten out of control. The main scientist who studies the creature (Hugh, played by Ariyon Bakare) points out, even after being badly injured by Calvin, that it’s just following its instinct to survive and bears no malice.

Character-wise, I think the movie does a good job. The characters have a good mix of personalities, but they’re all played as professionals who know how to stay calm under pressure. There are some moments when they give into fear or anger, but then they get it together and work the problem. Ryan Reynolds is maybe a bit exaggerated as the standard cocky, wiseass space guy, not unlike George Clooney’s Gravity character, but he has some good moments — especially one where he’s in the lab with the escaped creature and Gyllenhaal’s character slams the hatch shut with him inside. Reynolds meets his eyes for a moment, then just nods and says “Yeah,” a quiet, almost casual acknowledgment that he did the right thing and is forgiven. Rebecca Ferguson is pretty solid as the “planetary protection officer,” the designer of the “firewalls” meant to prevent contamination between the humans and any alien life. She’s the one who bears the most responsibility for the steps that must be taken when the creature escapes, steps that the crew members know they might not survive, and Ferguson bears that weight with convincing professionalism. Hiroyuki Sanada and Olga Dihovichnaya round out the cast effectively, though they didn’t make too strong an impression on me. I do wish the cast had been a bit more diverse, and though they faked us out and nicely averted the “black guy dies first” cliche, we did still end up with two white actors, Ferguson and Gyllenhaal, as the last survivors. Still, it does better on the diversity front than Interstellar did.

But what damaged the film for me was its very ending. Major spoilers here: In the climax, we’re made to believe that the final plan to keep the creature from reaching Earth is succeeding, but enough deliberate ambiguity is created that it could go either way, and it isn’t until the final minute that we get the shock reveal that, no, the plan failed and the creature made it to Earth, implicitly dooming humanity. That downer ending left me with a very disheartened feeling. Okay, having the good guys lose is often what defines a horror movie, but I didn’t care for it at all here. This wasn’t the kind of horror movie where the characters are idiot teenagers making stupid decisions so you can feel they deserved what they got. This was a movie where good people made smart and brave decisions that should’ve worked, where they were heroically willing to sacrifice themselves in order to protect humanity as a whole, so having them ultimately fail to defend the Earth feels nihilistic, like it invalidates all their skill and sacrifice and renders everything we’ve seen pointless. It also plays into an anti-science mentality, the old Luddite idea that exploration can only bring ruin. I’ve never cared for that. One thing I liked about Europa Report was that, even though the outcome was tragic, the crew’s efforts still achieved something positive by advancing human knowledge, that their sacrifice served a noble purpose. By comparison, this ending left me with a very hollow and bitter feeling.

Also, in retrospect, Calvin was too superpowerful, too smart and too capable of overcoming everything the characters did to contain or kill it. As believable as the first two acts of the film were, it started to push the limits of credibility in the third act, both where Calvin’s abilities were concerned and in the contrivances necessary to create the climactic situation. There’s even a point where Calvin actively tries to stop Gyllenhaal from doing something that would keep it from reaching Earth, even though there’s no possible way the creature could’ve known enough about orbital physics to know the danger it was in or enough about spacecraft engineering to know how to avert it. Up to then, most everything Calvin managed to do was reasonably credible, but this broke the logic of the story and gave the creature magical omniscience in order to force a shock ending, and I just don’t buy it. The movie should not have ended this way, not just from an optimism standpoint, but from a basic plot logic standpoint. I guess that’s part of why it feels so wrong and frustrating to me — because it was forced rather than earned.

In sum, Life is mostly a very good, smart, believable movie with a sense of wonder (though with a terribly dull title), but the ending really hurts it.

Double annotation update! PATTERNS OF INTERFERENCE and “Abductive Reasoning” now have notes

Since both Star Trek: Enterprise — Rise of the Federation: Patterns of Interference and the September/October 2017 Analog containing my story “Abductive Reasoning” came out within the past couple of weeks, I decided I might as well post both their annotations at the same time. I’ve actually been waiting until I got my author copies of Analog, so that I’d know what pages the story was on and what the opening illustration looked like. (That’s right, they don’t let us know these things ahead of time.) That finally happened this afternoon, so I was able to complete those annotations, and here we are.

Both sets of notes can be accessed from the menu at the top of my blog, but here are the direct links (beware spoilers):

Patterns of Interference Annotations

“Abductive Reasoning” Annotations

Researching these was interesting for me, since both “Abductive Reasoning” and portions of PoI draw on elements of stories I originally wrote back in the ’90s, so I had to try to track down my original sources of inspiration, and in the process I reminded myself of some things I’d forgotten. I had a very fulfilling day of research tracking down sources and background materials for “Abductive,” and it’s surprising to me that this fun little comedy story generated such extensive and wide-ranging scientific notes.

Thoughts on the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, Part 3 (spoilers)

September 2, 2017 7 comments

Concluding my reviews of the Universal Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce:

The Woman in Green (’45): This one is darker in tone than the last few, and opens with an odd bit of narration directed at the audience (as opposed to the previous film, where the opening narration was being directed to Holmes and Watson by the man requesting their help). The narrator is Inspector Gregson (Matthew Boulton), making his sole appearance in the Rathbone series — perhaps because the comic-relief Lestrade was inappropriate for a story about a Jack the Ripper-style crime spree in which women are being murdered by someone who cuts off their right “forefingers” (aka index fingers). Holmes and Gregson discuss the case at an upscale club where they observe Sir George Fenwick (Paul Cavanagh in his third role in the series) with an attractive blonde woman in what I have to assume is a green outfit (the dialogue never specifies and the film’s in black-and white — nor is her wardrobe ever relevant to the story, making this a fairly random title). The woman, Lydia Marlowe (Hillary Brooke, previously a military driver in The Voice of Terror and the Musgrave heiress in S.H. Faces Death), takes him home, sets a relaxing mood, and speaks to him in a hypnotic tone… and then he awakes in a dive hotel the next morning with a dead woman’s severed finger in his pocket! He goes back to Lydia to ask what happened, and is confronted by a debonair blackmailer. When his daughter later calls in Holmes to help with his troubling behavior, they find him shot in the back, clutching a matchbook from the club where Holmes saw him with the mystery woman.

Holmes realizes the murders are being done merely to set up blackmail victims by planting the fingers on them — and only one criminal mastermind is diabolical enough for such a scheme. That’s right, it’s the third and final appearance of Professor Moriarty, and no sooner does Holmes voice his suspicion than Moriarty, the blackmailer we saw before, lures Watson away and pays a call on Holmes. This time, he’s played by Henry Daniell, who’s noticeably younger than the previous two Moriartys, George Zucco and Lionel Atwill. There’s no continuity with previous films, or perhaps there was an unchronicled case between films, since Watson believes the professor was hanged in Montevideo the year before. Anyway, the Holmes/Moriarty interaction is less achingly polite and more brief and hostile than before, in part because the two geniuses know each other so well that they don’t even need to have the conversation out loud. (This is based on their exchange in “The Final Problem.”) Daniell makes an effectively chilling Moriarty, but in a colder, less genteel way than his predecessors, so that kind of civil interplay doesn’t suit him as well.

Anyway, there’s soon an attempt on Holmes’s life which Holmes avoids using the old “decoy bust of Caesar silhouetted in the window” trick, loosely based on the gambit from “The Adventure of the Empty House.” (Rathbone points to his aquiline nasal bridge and remarks that “Throughout history, prominent men have had prominent noses.” As the bearer of a somewhat Roman nose myself, I appreciated that.) He and Watson discover the sniper to be deeply hypnotized, giving Holmes the key to the murders. The woman in green must be a hypnotist! This leads them to a society of hypnotists (recommended to Holmes by his brother Mycroft, mentioned here for the only time in the series) where Dr. Watson is put through a predictable comic-relief scenario, but the woman shows up to entice Holmes into a trap set by Moriarty. Playing on his curiosity, she lures him home and offers to hypnotize him, though since he’s a “difficult subject,” she offers him an herbal sedative, a fictitious “Oriental drug” that the screenwriters rather amusingly named “Cannabis japonica.” So she’s basically giving him weed. Once he’s under, Moriarty appears and commands him to write a suicide note and jump off the roof — but of course he was faking until Watson and the cops would show up. Of course, Moriarty tries to escape arrest and falls to his death for the third time in three appearances. Come on, guys, I know he canonically went over Reichenbach Falls, but this is getting repetitive. (Also… He keeps dying and coming back with a different face, sometimes a younger one. Is Moriarty a Time Lord? Maybe he actually is the Master!)

A fairly good one, effectively moody and intense, aside from Watson’s hypnotic humiliation. It does rely a bit too much on coincidence and convenient timing, with Holmes just happening to see the culprit and her victim together, and Moriarty just happening to show up mere minutes after Holmes reveals his suspicion of the prof’s involvement. Interesting change of pace, though, to see Holmes pursue a suspect by romancing her.

Pursuit to Algiers (’45): Interestingly enough, though this is the first Universal Holmes film to come out after World War II, it’s also the first since the initial three to have a storyline involving international intrigue. But the escapism of the past few films is still in effect. Even though the war would still most likely have been ongoing at the time of production, the story deals with an imaginary nation called Rovinia and its internal intrigue, with Holmes taking the case due to vague platitudes about the cause of world democracy. WWII isn’t even mentioned.

Before that, though, we see Holmes and Watson preparing for a fishing vacation, and this time it isn’t in service to a scheme as in The Spider Woman. This seemed out of character to me, given Holmes’s known lack of interest in anything unrelated to crime, but on further exploration, I find that there are references to Holmes enjoying fishing in “The ‘Gloria Scott'” and “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place.” So if it’s an inconsistency, it falls on Doyle rather than Universal. (Well, perhaps he enjoys fishing because it gives him time to think.) In any event, he’s lured into the case by a very convoluted series of messages that pretty much required recruiting an entire tavern worth of performers and several men on the street, which seems to rather defeat the purpose of a secret message, as does having Holmes and Watson talk about it openly as it happens. Anyway, it leads them to a meeting with representatives of Rovinia, who want Holmes to escort the heir to the assassinated king back home. Holmes is assigned a small plane, requiring Watson to take a cruise ship, the Friesland, and meet Holmes in Algiers. (This is implicitly meant to be the unchronicled adventure Watson hinted at in “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” “the shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland, which so nearly cost us both our lives.” We also get to hear Watson’s partial account of the affair of the giant rat of Sumatra, alluded to in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.”)

Much as in The Spider Woman, Watson briefly believes Holmes has been killed in a plane crash with the prince, but soon discovers that Holmes ditched the plane before the crash (it’s not explained how) and stowed himself and the prince aboard the liner. Most of the movie is thus a ship-based story, with the leads interacting with their colorful fellow passengers, many of whom have secrets, and one of whom is a beautiful singer (Marjorie Riordan) who performs several songs in the film, mostly for Dr. Watson, with whom she bonds. Nigel Bruce also performs “Loch Lomond” in an unexpectedly strong, operatic voice. And there’s a trio of bad guys after the prince, including a deadly knife-thrower played by German actor Martin Kosleck, who reminds me slightly of a young Peter Lorre, and who has a clash or two with Holmes, to his detriment.

The title is highly misleading. Algiers had a cinematic reputation as an exotic land of intrigue and romance (thanks largely to the 1938 Charles Boyer/Hedy Lamarr film Algiers), which is presumably why they chose to invoke it; but the movie ends just as the ship reaches Algiers and the city is never actually seen, nor do any of the passengers have any connection to it. They could’ve chosen any other coastal destination with zero impact on the story.

Despite all the intrigue and music and so forth, I find this the blandest film yet in the series. The cruise ship setting is a bit too static and claustrophobic, the setup is a bit too contrived, and there’s no real mystery, no murder to be solved, just some obvious bad guys to thwart and a couple of red herrings to expose. While Holmes still gets to be exceedingly clever and devious, it doesn’t really feel like a Holmes story otherwise. This steamship adventure is the first suggestion that the series is running out of steam.

Terror by Night (’46): The second movie in a row to use the “passengers on a conveyance” format, this film is set almost entirely within three cars of a railroad train. The budget must’ve been getting really tight by this point, limiting them to these claustrophobic stories. (This is also the first film in the series to run less than an hour, though only three of the Universal films surpass 70 minutes.) The introductory narration (anonymous this time) reuses the “fabulous jewel with a trail of death” setup previously used by The Pearl of Death. It feels very derivative from the start, and mostly it isn’t very interesting, just a lot of moving back and forth among compartments in a single car as Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade conduct their various investigations and interrogations of the passengers. Watson is more clueless than ever; not only is he totally unhelpful (aside from getting the drop on the baddie in the climax, though Holmes does most of the fighting that follows, or rather his unconvincing stunt double does), but he borders on actually impeding Holmes’s work — alienating one suspect by attempting his own clumsy interrogation, diverting Holmes from a key clue to pursue a red herring, and failing to notice Holmes hanging on the outside of the train when one of the villains kicks him out. It’s his most unflattering portrayal yet. By this point, Bruce’s Watson really has become the caricature that everyone remembers him for these days.

There’s a decent guest turn from Alan Mowbray as the villain, who further makes Watson look bad by impersonating an old war buddy of his with Watson none the wiser, but who turns out to be Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s right hand from “The Adventure of the Empty House.” Also notable is the main female guest star, Renee Godfrey, who’s gorgeous as all get-out, but does such a terrible Cockney accent that it took me several scenes to figure out that’s what it was supposed to be.

Once more, the title is pretty random — not misleading so much as uninformative. Okay, the story does take place mostly over one night, but as with the past couple of movies, the title emphasizes something that isn’t really that significant to the plot. But I guess Murder on the Edinburgh Express would’ve been too derivative…

The plot does have a decent twist or two toward the end, but it’s yet another “The villains seem to get the drop on Holmes but he turns out to have been two steps ahead of them all along” ending. The main novelty it offers is that Holmes’s plan depends on Lestrade being quick on the uptake for once, and the Inspector rises nicely to the occasion, a good ending for his final appearance in the series.

Dressed to Kill (’46): After the last two cheap, formulaic entries, I was afraid the Rathbone series would come to a disappointing end, but fortunately that isn’t the case. I doubt that Roy William Neill, the producer/director of all but the first of the Universal Holmes films, could have known that he was nearing the end of his life (he died of a heart attack after this film), and Universal still had three years on the contract, but it’s as if they decided to go out with a bang anyway, or maybe to try to revitalize the series after the last two tepid installments.

This one not only pulls out all the stops, going for a longer run time and a more expansive production, but it gets back to its Holmesian roots, with abundant references to the canon, particularly “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which in the film’s continuity has only just been published in The Strand (55 years later than in reality, and less than four years before the magazine ceased publication). Holmes feels more like himself, with more of his intensity and idiosyncrasies on display than we’ve seen in a while, and while Watson is not particularly on the ball, neither is he particularly dimwitted or the butt of jokes this time, and his musings accidentally inspire key revelations in Holmes twice. This is also the first film in the series since The Spider Woman to acknowledge WWII in any way — indeed, in a particularly disturbing way, when the villains attempt to murder Holmes using the same kind of poison used in the Nazi gas chambers.

The plot is clever, involving the hunt for a trio of “musical boxes” made by a prisoner and encoding the location of the treasury printing plates he stole in the tunes they play. Holmes’s rival in the search for the boxes is the brilliant and lovely Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison), whose brilliance and cunning rival Irene Adler’s, and who similarly manages to outsmart him, in this case luring him into the gas deathtrap, as well as stealing a trick from “Scandal” to get Watson to reveal where the final music box is hidden. Morison makes Courtney a worthy rival for Holmes, the best in a while. All in all, I’d call this one of the best films in the series, and a worthy finale.

The title’s still in the same oddly generic vein as the previous few, though. I have a hard time figuring out how Dressed to Kill applies to the story, unless it’s a reference to Courtney’s skill at disguise and/or her elegant fashions. It’s also generic in that it’s the third of four unrelated films using the title — the others being a 1928 gangster film with Mary Astor, a 1941 mystery with Lloyd Nolan, and a 1980 erotic thriller directed by Brian De Palma and starring Michael Caine. (Not to mention the Roger Corman sexploitation film Stripped to Kill from 1987, and its sequel 2 years later.) I wonder why the title is so popular, and why they used it here.

By the way, Rathbone and Bruce were also playing Holmes and Watson on radio in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes at the same time that they were doing the films, from 1939-46, though Bruce continued for a year after Rathbone left, and the series continued with other actors until 1950. A number of episodes survive online at the Internet Archive and elsewhere, and I’ve listened to a couple, but I didn’t think too much of them. Since the radio series started in the wake of the first two 20th Century Fox films, it set its stories in the Victorian Era and stayed there even after the Universal films jumped into the present (which must’ve been a bit confusing for the audience). Although the radio adventures were framed by a retired Watson narrating them to the radio host in the present day, which would have made him exceedingly old. Unfortunately, the format means that we hear considerably more of Bruce’s voice than Rathbone’s, and Bruce’s wheezy voice isn’t all that pleasant to listen to; indeed, his performance on radio sounds somewhat more shrill than his onscreen voice. As for the stories, the mysteries in the two I heard were rather basic and obvious. I guess there’s not much room to tell a complex mystery in a 25-minute story where much of the running time is devoted to the narrator talking about how terrific the sponsor’s wine is. Plus they had to churn them out once a week for years on end, so they can’t all be gems. The radio show is an interesting curiosity, but only a handful of its episodes seem to survive, and I’m not compelled to listen to them all.

I also decided to take a look at the previous Holmes film series, which ran from 1931-7 and starred Arthur Wontner as Holmes. But I couldn’t get through the first film, The Sleeping Cardinal. Wontner is a very unconvincing Holmes to me, an older man (56 as of the first film) with a slow, reedy voice, giving little sense of Holmes’s intelligence or intensity. He does look strikingly like some of Sidney Paget’s illustrations of an older Holmes, but he probably would’ve been more successful playing the role in silent films than in talkies. His Watson in most of the series (Ian Fleming — no, not that one) is younger and livelier, reminding me of David Burke, the first Watson from the Jeremy Brett TV series. It’s almost an inversion of the later Rathbone-Bruce dynamic, which paired a strong Holmes and a weak, older Watson. A curiosity, but not entertaining enough to hold my interest.

Incidentally, I was wrong to say earlier that Rathbone’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes popularized “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.” Wontner says it twice in his first two scenes. And it was already a well-established meme before then, already being referenced and parodied at the turn of the century, though its origin is hard to pin down. Here’s the most detailed article I’ve found on the subject, concluding that it was probably derived from a misremembering of the 1899 William Gillette Sherlock Holmes play, which doesn’t contain the line as scripted but contains similar lines that might’ve been conflated by the audience’s memory or by actor flubs.

I went into the Rathbone series with low expectations, figuring that it would be cheesy and inauthentic. But aside from a few weak entries, I found it surprisingly good overall. Despite the updated period and the mishandling of Watson, and despite telling mostly original stories, it’s pretty authentic in its treatment of Holmes, and it shows a lot of knowledge of the Doyle canon, with references peppered throughout, including subtle nods to things like Holmes keeping his pipe tobacco in a slipper, or a much less subtle recreation of the bit where he shot holes in the wall of 221B to test a theory (and those bullet holes remain in the wall for the remainder of the series, a nice little bit of continuity). Basil Rathbone is perfect as Holmes, in both appearance and performance, making him charming without losing his intellectual precision, eccentricity, and reserve. The series has a number of effective villains as well, including several female villains who are almost more than a match for Holmes, and watching his debonair battles of wits with them is quite entertaining. Moriarty is well-handled when he does appear, and he isn’t overused, being featured only three times in fourteen films, though referenced in several others.

All in all, I’ve come away with a renewed appreciation for the Rathbone series, as a solidly entertaining 1940s film series in its own right, as an adaptation of the Holmes canon, and as an antecedent for more recent screen adaptations and modernizations. It’s as valuable in its own right as the Jeremy Brett series that was “my” Holmes for a long time, or as Sherlock and (my preferred) Elementary today. I’m glad I decided to see it.

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