Category: Reviews

Movie Review: The Double

Movie Review: The Double

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The doppelganger myth is a venerable one that has frequently surfaced in literature and occasionally in the movies. The most famous cinematic treatment was probably one of the earliest (if one excludes the many trick films that duplicated their actors), The Student of Prague, and the legend also provided Roger Moore with one of his better parts in little-seen sleeper The Man Who Haunted Himself. Surprisingly, the premise seems to have occurred more frequently on television, possibly because it lends itself to dramatic conflicts that are best resolved in the half-hour or hour long format. Most notable among them are two superb episodes of the Twilight Zone, “Mirror Image” and “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room,” the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “The Curious Case of Mr. Pelham” and one of the better episodes of the revived Twilight Zone, “Shatterday,” adapted by Harlan Ellison from his outstanding short story and featuring a fine performance by Bruce Willis. The Double, written and directed by Richard Ayoade from a novella by Fyodyr Dostoyevsky, and starring Jesse Eisenberg, ably demonstrates that the inherent dramatic promise and conflicts in the doppelganger premise are well extendable to feature length, providing one of the best such cinematic treatments of the idea to date.

Wisely, Ayoade has retained Dostoyevsky’s main themes of the individual trying to maintain his sanity and identity within a rigid hierarchical bureaucracy while moving away from the novella’s mid-19th century Russian setting. Instead of transporting it to a recognizable present-day location, however, Ayoade places his narrative within a surreal world that exaggerates its conditions. Meek office underling Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) makes a daily (although it seems to be perpetual night) subway trek to his workplace, which resembles a cross between those of Brazil and Fight Club. Office equipment consists of an amalgation between hi-tech and retro-style (as in both Brazil and Blade Runner), Simon is one of the few workers who seems to be not past retirement age, and the brick-and-mortar walls of the workplace make it look like an extension of the subway station itself. All the while, tyrannical boss Papadoulos (Wallace Shawn, in a deliberately over-the-top-performance) glowers over everyone and makes Simon the brunt of his anger. It’s no wonder he’s unable to express himself emotionally to anyone, colleagues and strangers alike, much less the pretty Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who he has been trying to approach. He experiences no solace at home either, living a secluded life in the most dreary-looking apartment since that featured in Eraserhead; outside, industrial chimneys billow great big clouds of yellow smoke as in The Red Desert, and suicides occurring at the building right adjacent to his window have become so frequent, that a separate police squad has been formed just to take care of them. In short, this is the perfect environment for someone to lose their identity and individuality, and that’s just what happens when James (also Eisenberg) enters the picture. He looks just like Simon, but his affectations are different; he’s cockier, more confident, and is actually possessed of a degree of social competence. At first, James merely tries to move in on Simon’s place in the company, and the latter doesn’t put up much resistance; it’s not like he’s happy to be a part of it in the first place. Then James tries to get more personal in his attempts at taking over Simon’s life, including trying to be more assertive with Hannah, and taking credit for Simon’s work at the office. Big mistake. That’s when Simon decides that his own personal identity is something worth fighting for, but it may be already too late.

Ayoade’s decision to create a distinct setting midway between science-fiction and fantasy for his plot and characters works ingeniously on several levels. For one thing, it distinguishes it from other doppelganger stories which were about supernatural intrusion into the real world; here the double seems like an organic, natural part of the environment in which it appears, and instead of being seemingly unbeatable like earlier film doubles, it must follow its laws. Consequently, this heightens the dramatic conflict between the “two” main characters, who are interlocked in a struggle for survival in which only one may win. Additionally, Eisenberg’s characters, despite being physically identical and usually dressed in the same attire, are perceived as being distinctly and recognizably different by the other characters and are treated as such throughout the film. This seems both impossible and illogical, but it makes perfect thematic sense as well as perfectly plausible by the sort of rules the film’s universe works by. The only way Simon can realize the importance of asserting his own individuality is watching his own mirror image being treated the way he should be treated. And since he can only be defined in this universe by his role in a bureaucracy, he realizes that he can’t let James take his place in it, even though he’d remain low on the totem while James would only uses his hard work as a means to elevate himself. It’s a very effective twist on the usual treatment of the premise.

And finally, there’s Eisenberg’s performance . These sort of dual roles are always tricky for an actor, as it’s not enough to merely create and delineate two separate characters, but to somehow express the emotional and psychological similarities as well as the differences. The character(s) and situation are most similar to that in “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” where Joe Mantel’s mirror image-similarly a more strong willed version of his emotionally weak and battered “real-life” counterpart-desperately tries to take over both their lives in order to rectify a life of submission and failure before they are both completely ruined. The major difference is that there is no self-altruism involved in The Double; James is clearly a separate personality of his own who intends to submerge Simon’s completely in the name of self-interest. Eisenberg does a brilliant job of establishing both his characters and the bond between them, with help from the special effects and editing department. Scenes where the two are walking side by side, James walking tall and confident while Simon tries to follow his every step in an effort to match him, are especially effective in their subtle conveying of the relationship between the two. Eisenberg gets us to identify with Simon as someone who we have all felt like at our most helpless, while James is someone we have recognized all too well as inhabiting our workplaces and classrooms, the borderline sociopath who doesn’t care who suffers as long he gets what he feels he is entitled to. Ironically, Simon can only break the bonds of submissiveness not through James himself, but by confronting him head-on, when he fights for what he thinks he deserves as well.  This mean not just credit for his work, but the woman he covets, making him already closer to James than he thinks in his treatment of other people. What makes James such a chilling character is not that he embodies the sort of traits we have submerged in us, but that he represents precisely the sort of personalities we simultaneously despise to witness yet wish we could be more like in terms of self-confidence and assertiveness. Hopefully, all those complaining about Eisenberg being cast as Lex Luthor will be able to see his work in The Double and be persuaded that he’s not just an actor of suitable intelligence and maturity, but that he is capable of pulling off a cerebral villain or anti-hero very well indeed.

If there is a major weakness in The Double, it’s that as one may have surmised from the plot summary, there is a tad of derivativeness in the proceedings. It’s a technical and narrative triumph on the part of director Richard Ayoade, but stylistically, he seems in love with David Fincher’s murky green filters, with the occasional deep beige and dirty gray to interrupt the monochrome color scheme. In addition to many of the other films (and their director’s other works) cited earlier, Ayoade seems to owe a particularly large debt to Roman Polanski; although you will likely be most reminded of The Tenant while watching the film, both Repulsion and Chinatown also come to mind while viewing it and I even detected a faint whiff of Rosemary’s Baby. Still, The Double works very on its own individual merits (no pun intended) and I am definitely looking forward to future films by Ayoade.

Movie Review: Escape From Tomorrow

Movie Review: Escape From Tomorrow

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My mother and sister were once trapped for two and a half hours in the “It’s A Small World” attraction at Disney World. I hadn’t a clue what their ordeal was like until I suffered through Escape From Tomorrow, which at least was an hour shorter .

This is the type of movie that gets so much attention for the story behind its production and its so-called “audacity” that the poor quality of the finished product becomes almost irrelevant. Roy Abramsohn, a sort of poor man’s Steven Carrell, is Jim, who learns that he has lost his job on his last day of vacations at Walt Disney World. This is just the beginning of his terrible, no-good, just-plain-awful day, as he accompanies his wife (in the film’s lone piece of genuine wit, he describes her as a cross between Emily Dickinson and Tina Fey; as played by Elena Schuber, she’s like a shriller version of Teri Garr) and two young children (a son and daughter, both as dully written and one-dimensional as children in the movies usually are) for what he hopes will be a relaxing time but as almost always turns out in the movies, things don’t go his way. Spotting two cheery teenage girls from France, also in search of amusements (apparently, Euro Disney wouldn’t do) triggers a strange obsession in him. He soon starts following them, disregarding his family totally. That’s when the trouble starts; he soon starts drinking heavily and begins to see the darkness behind the sunny facade of the fantasy world, and all sorts of strange and awful things-and strange and awful people-start to surround him. He also encounters a would-be Witch with a hypnotic crystal, discovers the secret beneath Spaceship Earth, and maybe other potentially interesting things happen, but I’m too bored even just thinking about the movie to care at this point.

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Sure, it all starts promisingly enough, especially in an early hallucinatory scene in the aforementioned “It’s a Small World” ride, where the cheery marionettes suddenly turn into grinning monsters, and the protagonist starts to see his wife and children as distortions of their true selves. If the movie had continued in this vein, being something like a modern take on Carnival of Souls or Night Tide, both of which made effective use of actual amusement park location filming to create memorable tales of characters caught between mundane reality and nightmarish fantasy, it might have been worth watching. Unfortunately, writer-director Randy Moore has made two fatal mistakes. One is trying to cram too many story ideas at once instead of maintaining a coherent narrative, an error all too common among independent, first-time directors who are also their own screenwriters, with no one there to tell them cut. It should have been decided early on whether or not the film was to be science-fiction satire, black comic horror, or devoid of fantastic elements to begin with; nothing in it seems to gel or fit together right. In the only other really memorable sequence, Jim finds himself imprisoned in a sterile laboratory hidden beneath Epcot Center, and subjected to tests by a mad German (of course) scientist who is himself not what he seems. It’s a scene reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, itself an overrated “classic.” If the movie had continued along with this particular story thread all the way to end, or better yet, had been the main plotline from the very beginning (using the amusement park setting the same way Godard used the modernist architecture of Paris to create his future world), then this ride might have been worth the price of admission. The sloppy and amateurish narrative construction extends to other areas as well. We are also somehow expected to believe that all the events and terrible things that befall Jim occur in a single day, yet anyone who has been at Walt Disney World even once will pick up immediately that it is utterly impossible for this to happen. There is the implication that the fantastic elements are all just a hallucination, but it is all far too vague to be certain, and far too frustrating to care about. As annoying as movies that blend reality with their lead character’s subjective fantasy and expect us to figure out which is which can be, movies too sloppy to care are even more irritating.

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Even worse, Moore has given us a nominal hero who is not only as frequently boring as the film itself, but is even more repulsive than the often unpleasant imagery the film proffers when not filming amusement park attractions. When Jim first starts following the two teenagers, it’s creepy, not funny. When his Humbert Humbert-ish obsession with trailing them compels him to endanger his son not once but twice (the first time by forcing him to go on Space Mountain him against his protests; the poor lad winds up losing his lunch whereas I merely lost my glasses) all sympathy is gone. Utter disgust is the only response when he abandons his daughter for some afternoon delight with the Witch (in a particularly vile move by the director, they leave their kids in the adjacent room while they have their quickie) and when he gets sickeningly drunk at Epcot Center, in wince-inducing scenes apparently intended to be funny. He does not deserve to be a father, much less a lead character. I don’t know if Jim’s ultimate fate was intended to funny or sad or both, but it is pathetic and suitably disgusting, the type of gross-out scene that indie films seem to indulge in with the excuse that they are being “transgressive.” The final shot is another classic example of a twist ending that Stevie Wonder could probably see coming from three miles away.

 

Supposedly, Escape From Tomorrow is intended to be some sort of social commentary on consumer culture and the way in which mass entertainment winds up suffocating our lives. If there was indeed any attempt at a coherent message on the subject of consumerism, the movie has completely failed in that regard. If it was trying to be anti-entertainment, it has succeeded completely.

 

Gravity: The Science Fiction Film in Free Fall

Gravity: The Science Fiction Film in Free Fall

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Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity has received an exceptional amount of critical acclaim for a science fiction film, more so for any other I can remember since Peter Weir’s The Truman Show.   This may be because, as with Weir’s film, many don’t recognize it as belonging to the genre. Yes, it takes place in outer space, the most familiar setting for the science fiction film, but since it (like the 1969 film Marooned) deals with events that could conceivably and possibly happen in the immediate future, it’s probably not unanimously regarded as such by mainstream critics, who don’t realize that the depiction of possible futures is precisely one of the main goals of science fiction. That may be why I’ve found myself less enthusiastic about the film than so many others after viewing it. As was the case with the wildly overrated Moon (2009), over-familiarity with the genre seems to greatly diminish my ability appreciate what others find to be so novel; on a purely visual and cinematic level, it’s certainly a tremendous achievement on the part of Cuaron and his crew, but on a story level, Gravity is (no pun intended) somewhat of a letdown. Not only will it also be overly familiar to other fans of written science fiction, but those well-versed in its cinematic equivalent will also find themselves recognizing various visual and story motifs. In addition to the aforementioned Marooned, everything from the rescue-with-oxygen-tank scene from Destination Moon to the horrifying image of the burnt-up skull face of a freshly-killed astronaut peering out its helmet in Riders to the Stars (also the consequence of a collision with space debris) seems to echo throughout the film. Even the very premise of the film itself evokes a key scene from a guilty pleasure of mine, the 1954 movie Conquest of Space, which coincidentally featured an appearance from George Clooney’s aunt Rosemary but was considerably less acclaimed, with no less than Forry Ackerman calling it “The Bomb of The Decade”.  This story could just as easily been cut to an hour or half-hour format, and then presented as an episode of the early Sixties show Men Into Space.  To be certain, a quite gripping and involving film has been built from a standard storyline; however, the almost unanimous, at times hyperbolic acclaim the film has been receiving need to be tempered by informed criticism.

Some science fiction fans have compared Gravity‘s storyline to Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “Kaleidoscope,” but it actually bears a closer resemblance to some of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic short stories such as “Breaking Strain,” “Summertime on Icarus” and “Transit of Earth,” as well as the vignettes that make up The Other Side of the Sky. In these stories, Clarke tried to credibly and convincingly depict the sort of life-and-death situations future astronauts might encounter “out there,” and they more often than not involved problem-solving based on the application of scientific knowledge and practical engineering. A more important conceptual breakthrough was Clarke’s focus on the personal experience of space exploration: The thoughts and emotional states of astronauts as they work their way through technical crises is a primary concern of these stories, many of which are written in the first person, and the story and presentation of Gravity is very much in this vein. The film is not so much about outer space than it is about the lead character’s experience of it; nearly every directorial choice reminds us that this story is being told from the perspective of Sandra Bullock’s astronaut. Remarkably, the sort of premise most science fiction writers would restrict to the size of a short story or at best, a novelette, is effectively expanded to the length of a feature film, and one of the best aspects of Gravity is the efficiency of the plot, so that it still feels like a short story in terms of time expended. A lesser director than Cuaron would have dwelled endlessly on shots of the empty void or used a succession of quick cuts in a desperate attempt to keep the film moving, but since Cuaron rightfully views both visual effects and the 3-D Imax format as tools for telling his story instead of accessories to spectacle, he uses them to involve us so deeply in it that we don’t notice the passing of time. The opening sequence is especially bravura, as the camera, in a seemingly unbroken five-minute cut, moves across various characters working on the surface of the space station, fully establishing a credible setting and immersing us in such a manner that we fully embrace the illusion of being in a zero-gravity environment. Particularly important to a film where the characters spend nearly the entire duration in free fall, Cuaron is one of the few directors to recognize both the importance and usefulness of camera movement in the 3-D format, and there’s also a thematic significance to his doing do so, as a means of emphasizing their isolation in an environment where movement is free in all three dimensions.

Equally important as Cuaron’s direction in selling the story is the performance of Sandra Bullock in the lead. Some viewers may find the life-and-death situation she finds herself to be in this film to be not unlike that featured in her breakout film Speed, and her astronaut can be seen as a more mature version of her character from the earlier movie. While this time she may only be trying to save her own life instead of a busload of passengers, she faces even greater challenges, not just physical (in Speed, she merely had to pilot a bus linearly across a horizontal plane; this time, she must fully navigate her way through three-dimensional vector space!) but psychological and emotional as well, and she must prove that she has not just fulfilled the survival training expected of her, but what she expects of herself as well. It’s a remarkable, cerebral performance, and Bullock especially handles herself well in those long silent passages where we are only supposed to be able to understand her thoughts and emotions through the subtlest facial expressions or body movements.

It’s a shame then, that so much time is expended on the far less interesting and more poorly handled character played by George Clooney. It’s not entirely his fault, as he’s handed most of the film’s clunker lines and the character as written comes off as overbearing and patronizing, but his performance still comes off as overly smug and phoned-in. Another actor (maybe Gary Sinise or Clive Owen, the star of Cuaron’s Children of Men) might have been able to give the veneer of professionalism without pomposity, but better yet, the character could have been written out entirely, since he’s not really essential to the film. Not only would that have allowed the film to concentrate more fully on Bullock’s character, and charted her development, her survival strategies and inner conflicts,  but it would have eliminated the film’s absolute worst scene. I will not say anything more about it except that the audience I was with first laughed at the stupidity of it before they realized what was happening, and when they did realize it, they collectively groaned that the movie had stooped to not just one of the worst cliches in the business but one of the worst cheats in cinema, one that completely destroyed the illusion of real time the film had built up to that point.

Of course, without the Clooney character, the film would have run even shorter than its ninety-minute running time, and an already swift-moving film would have felt even briefer. Mainstream critics have so fallen over each other in praising the visual audacity and innovations in Cuaron’s film, that they haven’t taken the time to examine the story very closely. As science fiction, it’s very ordinary; it would have been sent into most editor’s slush piles years ago, although it would have certainly worked as a chapter in a larger novel or novella. Even though the film will undoubtedly lose much of its visual impact outside of the 3-D and Imax formats, it should probably be screened in film and science fiction literature classes just to illustrate the difficulties and challenges in making a movie in the genre, and the differences between the cinematic and the literary art forms. A key example of the difficulty can be seen in how the movie tries to compensate for the complete absence of sound in its “exterior” shots. While it is certainly admirable that Cuaron and his crew made this commitment to scientific realism,  composer Steven Price has seemingly tried to compensate for the lack of sound by creating one of the most annoying scores of recent years, punctuating every emotion and movement with overbearing intensity. It’s nonetheless certainly a relief to find a science fiction film that takes its science seriously. What a vast difference over the awful Mission to Mars, which opened with a scene where the illusory “Martian Face” was revealed as an actual sculpted visage and went downhill from there, accumulating a litany of errors and “artistic licenses” (including loud sounds in the empty vacuum of space), hurtling towards an idiotic ending that pandered to the Intelligent Design crowd!

Although Gravity may indicate that film techniques and technology have advanced to the point where cinematic science fiction can finally approximate its print equivalent, I would hesitate before taking it and the recent Europa Report as harbingers of a new dawn of hard science fiction movies. In the late Nineties, I had great expectations for things to come with the likes of The Arrival, Contact, Gattaca and Dark City, only to find the genre sink back into the morass of brain-dead action films. Even as film technology advances, the science fiction cinema’s future will be limited by the stories the filmmakers themselves choose to tell. Gravity is a superior example of filmed science fiction, but it is not the space film to end all space films some claim it is.

 

The Real Thing: An Intellectual Defense of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World

The Real Thing: An Intellectual Defense of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World

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If you were to survey most of the reviews on the Internet, you probably wouldn’t realize that The Thing From Another World has not only long been considered to be a classic, but is one of the most important science fiction films ever made. And if you’re using the Internet exclusively as a resource, that’s part of the whole problem. Although even the very best science fiction films of the Fifties have had to struggle against unfair blanket criticisms and mischaracterizations, the case of The Thing from Another World is especially tragic, as not only is it a landmark film in the genre, it was one of the few science fiction films to attain a high degree of acclaim and respectability from mainstream critics and fans alike. Whereas it used to routinely be on the top of all-time best lists in the genre, it now rarely does so; instead it has become the object of sneering derision and contempt by genre snobs who are upset that it’s not exactly like the original novella and by amateur armchair critics who have an ignorant and uninformed bias against older films in general and older science fiction films in specific. A portent of this shift in perspective came when the film’s 50th anniversary rolled around in 2001, an occasion that should have merited a special edition DVD; instead, it received a bare-bones release, which is inexcusable considering the DVD was released by Warner Brothers (the film was originally released by RKO), which is well known for giving its classic films library the deluxe treatment. That this oversight was not rectified for the film’s 60th anniversary only further compounds the injustice being done to a film of such recognized historical and artistic importance, that it had previously been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

 

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Ironically, much of this decline in reputation stems from a tribute paid by some of the film’s greatest admirers. Like many other science fiction films of the era it was remade in the 1980s, and the reputation of John Carpenter’s The Thing has since gone from being merely gross to grossly overrated. Thanks to a combination of nostalgia, the baffling cult for director John Carpenter, and the contemporary attitude that views special effects and shock value as being more important than story and intellectual content, it may now be the most overrated science fiction film of all time. The attitude of fanboys across the Internet appears to be that this is one movie that is completely above criticism and is to be regarded as sacrosanct, and that one is obliged to share this opinion if one wishes to retain one’s credentials as either a science fiction or horror fan. Not satisfied with merely rescuing the reputation of “their” movie, they have also engaged in a spiteful campaign of denouncement against the 1951 film, waged on blogs, message boards, and review sites, not just aimed at diminishing its reputation but defaming its champions. When defending the original film, I have been personally attacked and told that I am not a “true” science fiction fan for preferring it, ostensibly because a “true” fan would only prefer that adaptation which hews more closely to the original premise in the source material for both films, John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?” Almost invariably, during these discussions, it becomes clear that either the Carpenter/Campbell adherent has obviously not seen the original movie at all or are basing their judgments on a single viewing many ages ago, riddled as they are with factual inaccuracies about the film and featuring the same tired, unsupported talking points, repeated over and over again without a single original thought provided.

  I will not, however, concentrate on comparing the two movies. For one thing, too much has already been written about the 1982 film; one of the most annoying habits of its cultists is the way they seemingly insist on making the movie the subject of every piece of film commentary on the Internet, and try to shoe in the most strained or ludicrous comparisons simply as an excuse to mention it. More importantly, I am far more interested in praising than burying, and so my primary focus will be in the defense of the original 1951 film, and in addressing the major criticisms that have been levelled at it over the years. As shall be seen, most of these are wrongheaded in nature, borne out of either misinterpretation or ignorance. The major controversy over the film, for many years, was over whether it was directed by the name on screen, Christian Nyby, or its producer Howard Hawks; it has now been well established that Hawks was not just the director of the film but supervised the entire creative process of the film closely to its completion. With the knowledge that one of the greatest American directors of all time is responsible for the film, it’s possible to provide a defense of the film based on its artistic merits in order to demolish other controversies swirling around it, which have to do with its qualities both as a film and as a work of science fiction.

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The most controversial change, one which science fiction fans have debated for years, is the elimination of the Protean, shape-changing nature of the alien in the original novella. Literary purists, of course, abound everywhere and tend to be extremely sensitive whenever a cinematic adaptation fails to be literally faithful to the letter of a particularly beloved or acclaimed literary work. In the realm of science fiction, The Thing from Another World is hardly alone in setting off purist hackles. To use two more examples, the film version of Starship Troopers is notorious for angering Heinlein fans by turning a thoughtful and profound social and psychological mediation on the role of military duty in society into a gory, cartoonish action film, and George Pal’s adaptation of Charles Finney’s The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao has been criticized for watering down the dark and sardonic portrait of humanity into a family-friendly fantasy film. But maintaining that a film adaptation must be completely faithful to its source material, and that it’s otherwise worthless if it fails to be so, is a thoroughly unrealistic assumption that belies a cultural and cinematic illiteracy. What a good adaptation should try to do is be at least as good as its source material, and I repeat, at the very least. Ideally, it should also improve upon it in the transition to a new format. On these grounds, The Thing From Another World ranks with Casablanca, The Godfather, Jaws and The Treasure of Sierra Madre as examples of film adaptations that are superior to their source material. Furthermore, along with Blade Runner, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Planet of the Apes and not least of all, 2001: a Space Odyssey, it demonstrates that an outstanding science fiction film can be made from a highly loose adaptation as well.

Those attacking the 1951 film for deviating too much from the original story are being not just hypercritical then,  but hypocritical; the same denunciation only gets launched against works such as Starship Troopers and Dune which were not only widely read by a mass audience but had massive cult followings surrounding them or their authors.  This hypocrisy is further evident by the way younger film buffs often list the remake of The Thing alongside those of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Fly (1986) as a trio of re-toolings of 1950s science fiction films that are allegedly superior to the original while repeating that fidelity to the original is one of the reasons to prefer the Carpenter film (why not call it John W. Campbell’s The Thing instead, then?). Yet not only are the original film versions of The Fly and Invasion of the Body Snatchers much closer to their original source material than their subsequent remakes, they’re arguably even more faithful than Carpenter’s film is to Campbell’s novella! Even more disingenuous is the way some of these same people will praise Paul Verhoeven specifically for being unfaithful to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers by choosing to “satirize” the material instead of filming a respectful adaptation! Regardless of genre, what ultimately matters is if an adaptation works as a movie, no matter how loose the treatment. The notorious 1995 film of The Scarlet Letter wasn’t a bad movie because of its ill-advised “modernization” of the film’s themes; it’s a bad movie because it was badly done on most levels. On the other hand, the 1939 film of Wuthering Heights (adapted by the team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who also wrote many of Howard Hawks’ greatest films is a great movie in spite of covering only the first half of the book and making significant alterations to both the plot and characters.

As it should be evident by now, when you translate a story from one medium to another, accommodations and modifications must be made, and this is something the more uninformed and obsessive members of the fan community never seem to learn. These criticisms of The Thing From Another World, which have dogged it since its original release, are among the first manifestations of the so-called “fanboy attitude” which has become all the more obvious in our Internet era, where comic book movies have become their own genre and regularly incite vitriol from fans who grow upset at the slightest deviation or artistic liberty taken with “their” books. A common thread with these discontents is the insistence that film adaptations must be made for the original audience or fanbase for a book instead of taking the broader public into account, a suicidal move for any film production.  The attacks on The Thing from Another World by certain members of the science fiction community are particularly revealing of their insularity and how out of touch they can sometimes be with outside concerns and realities (granted, this is true of the members of any fan movement that grows too obsessed and inward-looking).  The reverence accorded to John W. Campbell at the time, for his role as the editor of Astounding Science Fiction in which he discovered and mentored many of the great science fiction writers and helped push the genre towards literary maturity, was certainly a reason why hostility was so high; note that The Day the Earth Stood Still was itself a very loose adaptation of a story by Campbell’s predecessor at Astounding, Harry Bates, yet it has received almost none of the same criticism (except for dropping the story’s famous final line).

As for the changes made to nature of the alien, one must take into account that this was the first science fiction film to take the notion of extraterrestrial life seriously, and was being made not primarily for science fiction fans, but for the mass audience which was largely unfamiliar with written science fiction, much less the variations of alien biology that science fiction writers had already explored. Despite being derided for the abandonment of the shapeshifting motif, it was the right movie at precisely the right moment to introduce the wider public to what science fiction fans had been reading for the past twenty years. The alien not only did not need to retain its metamorphic nature, but to have done so would have been a distraction, too eccentric for an audience not yet familiar with the notion of extraterrestrial life. Subsequent films, beginning with Jack Arnold’s outstanding 1953 film It Came From Outer Space, would run with the idea, but nearly every science fiction film making use of the premise of alien possession or physical assimilation of human bodies, even those of such quality as both the 1956 and 1978 versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has run into narrative or logical roadblocks and loopholes that are more easily avoided in the prose fiction format.

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It is now known that at least one point early in production, Hawks did consider using the shape-changing aspect before discarding it, wisely so given the reasons given above, as well as the technical limits of the era and the budgetary limits afforded him. Those who claim it could have been done easily are frankly uninformed of the great difficulties involved in film production in any given period. The early drafts of the script also describe an alien very close to that featured in the novella, albeit taller, blue-skinned, with three red eyes, a sucker mouth, and a Medusa-like tangle of writhing tendrils for hair. Add a third eye to Star Trek‘s Salt Vampire, and you’ll have a good idea as to what the original script’s Thing looked like. Obviously, a much simpler creature was chosen; it turned out that in order to have it interact properly with actors, they needed to go with the man-in-suit-and-makeup route. This is a plain fact numerous later films would find out as well, much to the consternation of science fiction writers who point out the unlikelihood of humanoid beings evolving elsewhere. Ignorant and uninformed temporal snobs have condemned the film for featuring a humanoid “lumbering monster,” although curiously, the humanoid aliens of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Stargate SG-1, etc. don’t seem to provoke similar reactions from them, for the most part (nor do they seem to mind the “lumbering monsters” of all of today’s unimaginative and lookalike zombie movies, all of which owe at least a partial debt to The Thing From Another World, given that George Romero has credited the film as an influence on Night of the Living Dead ). Moreover, special effects technology had not advanced to the point where the sort of on-screen transformations demanded by the original story were possible, and even if they had been attempted, the multiple special effects and make-up jobs on different actors would have pushed the budget and schedule beyond the realm of economic viability. The sort of time-lapse effects that had transformed Lon Chaney into The Wolf Man, or the tricks with colored filters that turned Frederic March into Mr. Hyde were hardly up to the task, and even the late Ray Harryhausen, in his autobiography An Animated Life, claims he had offered them his services, although the obvious expenses involved in using stop-motion resulted in his getting brushed off early on in production.

One also wonders how many of those condemning the film for being an overly loose adaptation of its source material have actually bothered to read the original novella or indeed, to actually watch the original film. Although outwardly having seemingly little to do with “Who Goes There,” The Thing From Another World is more accurately described as an expansion of the first act of Campbell’s novella; nearly every aspect of the novella that reappears in the film is to be found in the first five chapters. It is during this act that the alien is retrieved, thawed, rampages through the Antarctic base, and is finally dispatched when it’s simultaneously torn apart by dogs and fried in an improvised electrical trap. Even such aspects of the film as the arguments over what to do with the frozen body of The Thing, the rapid clicking of the Geiger counter signaling its approach, and the suggestion that it can read minds are to be found in these first few chapters. What you won’t find is the shape-changing aspect that the fanboys hype as the whole raison d’etre for the entire story, and the absence of which supposedly makes the movie worthless. It is only during Chapter Six that we learn after the fact that the creature had been transforming itself during its fight with the dogs in the midst of a long-winded discourse on its physiology and biochemistry, making for some decidedly sloppy storytelling. The entire novella, in fact, suffers from severe deficiencies throughout: flimsy characterization, flat and unrealistic dialog, and the aforementioned sloppy story construction, as well as a simplistic three-act structure that results in a disjointed narrative where both the pedantic and the over-abbreviated mix uneasily. The 1982 film not only carried over many of those weaknesses, but wound up bungling the remaining strengths in the name of shock value and story expediency. Although parts are admittedly reasonably suspenseful, much of the lasting reputation of “Who Goes There” rests on that of Campbell’s as an editor (where he had no equal) and the central concept itself. Sad to say, but Campbell was much better at conceiving story ideas and assisting other writers than he was at writing himself; even his best works (this one and “Twilight”) are highly flawed, heavy on description and exposition, and dependent on the momentum of their ideas while being feather-light on characterization and narrative.

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Those same areas where “Who Goes There” is deficient in, The Thing From Another World excels at. Despite the criticisms leveled against it by purists, the screenplay of The Thing From Another World is considerably better written than its source material. Thanks to the formidable team of Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, the characters are realistic and vividly drawn and their conflicts, motivations and personalities form the crux of the drama and the thrust of the narrative. The dialog, as one would expect of a Hawks film, is rich, snappy and if not exactly realistic, fulfills our expectations of how great dialog should sound like. The story keeps running non-stop with barely a moment’s breath, and while the film has its share of technical explanations, it never stoops to long-winded discourse. It’s surprising that seemingly no film scholar has made a study comparing Howard Hawks and Joss Whedon, because everything fans consider original to Whedon can be found in the Hawks canon, and nowhere is it more obvious than in this film: an emphasis on ensemble casts instead of leads; a running theme on the need for teamwork and cooperation in the face of adversity that results in a focus on group dynamics and conflict as a source of drama; strong female characters that wind up taking dominant positions in male-dominated organizations; swiftly choreographed action scenes, and of course, sparkling, witty dialogue delivered in a fast, overlapping style. Beyond the script and direction, the film also features marvelous performances by the entire cast (my personal favorites being those by Dewey Martin as the enthusiastic and ingenious crew chief, and John Dierkes as the physically and intellectually imposing Dr. Chapman), outstanding cinematography by Russell Harlan, and a chilling score by the versatile Dmitri Tiomkin. It’s no wonder then that the film has not only been beloved not just by a generation of science fiction fans, but revered by film critics and cinema buffs who are not necessarily themselves fans of the genre. Any film which is able to cross several different spheres of fandom and artistic interest to gain not just an avid following, but critical respectability must be doing something right.

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While The Thing From Another World is not just good but great film making, and on that level, an improvement on its source material, is it good science fiction? This is where the discussion gets particularly controversial, and even more interesting. Some have opined that the elimination of the shape-changing element also robbed the film of its credibility as science fiction, but such assertions belies not just a wrong-headed attitude toward assessing the genre but a profound ignorance of it as well. A novel premise is not enough to make something good science fiction; it’s the execution of the premise that counts. When someone sneers at the “intellectual carrot” of The Thing From Another World while pointing to the shape-changer in the novella as an example of what constitutes “good” science fiction, you can rest assured you’re dealing with the sort of attitude Kurt Vonnegut satirized with his character of Kilgore Trout, where a bad writer gains a fervent following amongst simple-minded and unsophisticated fans due to his wildly imaginative ideas. If they dislike the vegetable alien of The Thing, do they feel the same about those in Day of the Triffids and At the Mountains of Madness, to say nothing of Zhann from Farscape or Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy? In his collection Before the Golden Age, Isaac Asimov calls the film “financially successful but science-fictionally contemptible,” yet in the same volume, he rhapsodizes over how he was scared by the humanoid plant monsters conceived by Murray Leinster for his story “Proxima Centauri” and how they seemed like such an earth-shattering concept to him. So apparently, this snobbish attitude towards the film has little to do with its actual merits, and everything to do with its not being exactly like the original story (or not being the Carpenter film).

As indicated by its name, science fiction should deal in some way with science itself, but good science fiction is not about ideas per se, but science’s relationship with individuals and societies, and its speculations need a firm ground in scientific reality. On these grounds, the film version of the story more than passes the test. The Thing From Another World is the thinking person’s monster movie, the first film to seriously contemplate the nature of extraterrestrial life, and it remains one of the most intelligent and adult treatments of the subject matter. On the surface, the reduction of the original alien to an intelligent humanoid plant seems base and simplistic, but such a simplification made it more approachable to viewers in 1951, and further allowed the film makers to explain the possibilities of extraterrestrial life to members of the audience unfamiliar with the concept. The script uses the same elements of analogy and induction that Darwin used in The Origin of Species to make the idea of intelligent life evolving elsewhere in the universe seem credible and believable. It first draws an analogy from the biology of its titular alien to plant life found on Earth, making comparisons to carnivorous plants, as well as drawing on then-current speculation about the possibility of communication between plant life, and then extrapolates from this to create a scenario about another planet where intelligent life evolved from vegetation instead of from animals. One of my greatest annoyances regarding criticisms of The Thing From Another World come from those who literally consider the alien to be a giant carrot based on a single line that was not only obviously intended as a joke (had it been in a Joss Whedon film, they would have considered it the pinnacle of wit), but in a sequence that makes it clear that the alien is not literally to be regarded as a walking vegetable, but that it has its closest Earthly equivalent to terrestrial plant life. Hawks and his writers had been responsible for both some of the greatest comedies and some of the finest dramas Hollywood had produced up to that time; they not only knew what was funny and what wasn’t, but when it was appropriate to interject humor into a drama. They also understood that when writing science fiction for the screen, you can’t have characters go at length explaining the technical background for your story without sacrificing dramatic effectiveness in the process. The type of lengthy discourse on alien biology in Campbell’s story, if translated word for word on film, would stop the movie dead. Good science fiction writing tries to find a way to capture the “shop talk” of actual scientists, as it would of any class of working professional, as a means of almost invisibly making the science understandable, and keeping it firmly grounded in realism (the best example of this technique for the screen probably being Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain, scripted by Nelson Giddings).

 

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Another major annoyance comes from the other major controversy swirling around the film, that it is somehow “anti-science” on the basis of the Carrington character. According to some critics, the film posits an ideological dichotomy between science and the military, rather like that in Robert Wise’s The Day Earth Stood Still from the same year; more often than not, they negatively compare the Hawks-Nyby film, where the scientist Carrington stubbornly tries to protect the obviously dangerous alien from destruction, to the Wise film, where nationalism and militarism, particularly the American variety, are openly attacked and Michael Rennie’s benevolent visitor finds a kindred spirit in Sam Jaffee’s gentleman physicist. What they may really be objecting to is not an unrealistic portrayal of scientists in the film, but one that is too realistic. Carrington had his real-life counterparts in the likes of Linus Pauling, whose commitment to pacifism resulted in blindness to the very real dangers presented by communism and the atrocities it perpetrated, or even outright traitors such as physicist Klaus Fuchs who sold nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union out of ideological zeal. Additionally, critics always seem to conveniently forget the positive depiction of the other scientists in the film, particularly John Dierkes’ heroic Professor Chapman, who almost immediately allies himself with Hendry and his men once the facts are made obvious to him, and Professor Voorhees, who starts out apolitical on the issue but soon sides with Hendry and Chapman as well. They may be viewed as standing in for such patriotic scientists as Vannevar Bush, who re-oriented American science policy after the war by linking it with national defense, and Robert A. Millikan, the Nobel Prize-winning conservative Republican physicist who bucked much of his party by being a strong anti-isolationist and advocating early entry into World War II.

Furthermore, the scientists in The Thing From Another World are regarded as equals to the military, both by the film and the characters themselves; they are every bit as brave and resourceful as the soldiers themselves, who in turn are in awe of their knowledge and expertise and realize that they have an immense responsibility in protecting the nation’s most valuable citizens at this remote base.  Certainly, the scientists in The Thing From Another World fare much better in their depictions than not just the one-dimensional antisocial malcontents in Carpenter’s remake, but than the lone scientist character in Ridley Scott’s Alien, who turns out to not only be the film’s true villain (or rather, a proxy for the actual bad guys), but not even human! Both scientific and military cultures work closely side by side in Hawks’ film, and ultimately with each other once they reach common consensus among most of their members (even Carrington winds up siding with the military top brass, when it opposes Hendry’s actions), and demonstrate a respect for each other’s work and abilities. Lying between these two worlds is my personal favorite character in the movie, the crew chief played by Dewey Martin, who enthusiastically makes use of the latest technology (radar and Geiger counters) and plays a pivotal role in building the trap that destroys the monster. The supposed ideological dichotomy between the forces of science and reason and those entrusted with defending and protecting the country is shown to be a false one in the film, as much as it is in real life.

 

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The Thing From Another World is not only not anti-science in specific, it is not anti-intellectual in general, as its critics also claim. As Jacques Rivette has noted, a running motif through Hawks’s film oeuvre is the celebration of pragmatic intelligence, where educated professionals must use their intellectual skills in confrontation with the external world (like Frank Capra, Hawks had an engineering degree from the California Institute of Technology), and try to make sense of it. Some of his other films also featured intellectuals or academics as main characters, often times in a group or institutional setting: zoologist Cary Grant who works at a museum in Bringing Up Baby, Gary Cooper and his fellow encyclopedia researchers, who all live together in a single home in Ball of Fire, and chemist Cary Grant again, at the university in Monkey Business, Hawks’ only other foray into science fiction. Characters also reveal their own hidden intellectual talents underneath a veneer of seeming normality or simplicity, even vulgarity, as do Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Although Margaret Sheridan from The Thing From Another World may fall in this category as well, the male characters in The Thing From Another World also reveal a heretofore unrevealed intelligence, that becomes more apparent once they work in concert with other highly-trained and skilled specialists towards their common goal.

 What makes this film particularly pertinent to the Hawks canon is this emphasis on group intelligence and teamwork, the pooling of intellectual skills and abilities to finish a task or goal upon which their survival hinges. Although Kenneth Tobey’s Pat Hendry is the nominal hero, he finds himself reliant on the rest of his men, as well as the scientists on the base, to stop the menace before him. Carrington, meanwhile, symbolizes not the dangers of intelligence but those of hubris, not realizing that in a time of crisis, he must cooperate with those he considers “below” him. For all his extolling of pure reason, Carrington, like many other such real-life individuals (as well as fictional characters up to and including Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory), is incapable of being reasoned with by or cooperating with his fellow man, although he expects to be able to do so with the alien creature who has already killed his colleagues (again, the allegory of the “useful idiot” who despises his own country but thinks of the Soviet Union as a great utopia rears itself)! The failure to cooperate, or inability to reason, is regularly punished in the Hawksian universe. The criminal gang in Scarface: The Shame of a Nation falls apart because of the collective stupidity of its members, particularly titular gang boss Paul Muni, whereas in Red River, the stubbornness of John Wayne’s character and refusal to face facts threatens the survival of a cattle drive.

Another blind spot in criticisms of The Thing From Another World is that they focus exclusively on Carrington’s failures, and not those of the military, whose individual and collective errors are what results in the creature’s thaw and impedes its capture, and whose higher command actually instructs to preserve the alien when individual lives are at stake (an idea which would be revived in both Alien and its sequel Aliens). Nor is Carrington a completely unsympathetic figure; Andrew Sarris has described the prototypical Hawksian hero as a “learned man concerned with the quest for knowledge…subjected to the inhuman excesses of the modern world” and this makes Carrington the perfect definition of a tragic hero in the Hawks lexicon. He is someone who cannot grasp that in this particular situation and environment, he must adapt to and confront these “inhuman excesses” instead of working against those who fight them, and put aside his quest of knowledge, even temporarily, so that the battle must be won. In many ways, this is in itself reflective of the tragedy of the contemporary intelligentsia, resisting social and economic realities in the name of high-minded ideology, with often tragic results for themselves and the rest of the world.

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We have in The Thing From Another World perhaps the best example of this thematic motif of “pragmatic intelligence” that Rivette identifies as running throughout Hawks’s work, and it is a shame that he ventured only once again into science fiction (and this time, for purely comedic purposes), as it is a theme that particularly invites a science-fictional treatment. While it may be regrettable that Hawks only turned his talents twice to the cinema of the fantastic, it is perhaps not coincidental that when he did so, it was in the field of science fiction, a genre as dependent on story realism and logic as Hawks’ own brand of cinema. As Rivette himself notes, the Hawksian universe is one of rigid laws whose inhabitants must learn to navigate through rational means; logical thought in this universe, according to Rivette, “is not some cold intellectual activity but proof that the body is a coherent whole, harmoniously following the consequences of an action out of loyalty to itself.” But as Rivette further notes, The Thing From Another World turns this universe upside down: “the mask is finally off: in the confined grip of the universe, some men of science are at grips with a creature worse than inhuman…and their efforts are directed toward fitting it into the logical framework of human knowledge.”

The conclusion we can draw from Rivette’s assessment is provocative. Every character in The Thing From Another World, regardless of their occupation or level of education must ultimately learn how to think like a scientist in order to survive. Since this creature does exist in this universe, it must follow its laws, and it must be possible to place it in the aforementioned “framework of human knowledge.” To defeat it, one cannot rely on muscle, but on intellect, and the application of the scientific method, as the team finds out, investigating the nature of the enemy, finding out through trial and error what its strengths and weakness are, what can and cannot kill it, and ultimately applying scientific knowledge to a final feat of engineering (such as in the case of The Manhattan Project itself) that will allow for a decisive victory. Although the film is certainly right-of-center in its implicit politics (Hawks, Nyby, and co-writer Lederer were all prominent Hollywood Republicans), it ultimately defends science and reason, both as the weapons of defense and tools of survival needed to win this Cold War.

Despite its shoddy DVD presentation, the current owners of The Thing From Another World have nonetheless made it readily available through regular airings on Turner Classic Movies, seemingly the only channel with integrity, where it is the frequent favorite of guest programmers (including John Carpenter, of course) who rhapsodize over the impact it had on them as children. It has even more to offer for the intelligent adult viewer who demands that their science fiction be thought-provoking as well as entertaining; they will find a witty, exciting and frightening thriller awaiting for them, one that stands up not just to multiple viewings, but multiple readings as well. Hopefully, someday, one of the few truly great science fiction films will receive the deluxe home video presentation that it richly deserves.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 

Di Fate, Vincent (2012). “It Crept Out of Bob’s Basement.” In Filmfax no.129.

 

 

Hardy, Phil (1984) The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction (1st edition).

 

 

Harryhausen, Ray and Dalton, Tony (2003). Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life.

 

 

McCarthy, Todd (2000). Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood.

 

 

Newsom, Ted (2000) “Retrospect: The Thing From Another World.” In SPFX no.9

 

 

Rivette, Jacques (1972) “The Genius of Howard Hawks.” In Focus on Howard Hawks, (Joseph McBride, Ed.), pp. 70-77.

 

 

Sarris, Andrew (1972). “The World of Howard Hawks.” In Focus on Howard Hawks, (Joseph McBride, Ed.), pp. 35-64

 

 

 

The Jeffersonian Rocketship: Heinlein’s American Ethos in Destination Moon

The Jeffersonian Rocketship: Heinlein’s American Ethos in Destination Moon

848aWith today’s review of Destination Moon, we begin a three-part look at three of the most important science fiction movies of the 1950s, films that have had an immense impact on  genre cinema since their release, and are also united by their conservative political leanings, either explicitly stated or in the form of subtextual undercurrents. And just to make it clear, the approach I take to film criticism is one of strict formalism; in other words, I do not care a wit as to what the politics expressed in a film are, or the politics of the artists involved are, as long as the final product is good. Unfortunately, such an approach is not shared by many left-leaning critics who feel it is their imperative to knock a film either down a peg or several notches for not adhering to their progressive ideology, or reflecting attitudes of the day that seem regrettable in hindsight, while in turn ridiculously overpraising any movie that does conform to leftist bromides. These reviews are an attempt to redress that imbalance, and provide intellectual criticism of fantastic cinema that is politically provocative while avoiding demagoguery.

 

Produced by George Pal and directed by Irving Pichel, Destination Moon is usually regarded as the movie that instigated the SF movie boom of the 1950s, although it wasn’t first, having been beaten to the punch by the cheaply-made (and quite awful) Rocketship X-M, the same year. Moreover, the two major SF films from the following year, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing From Another World, would both prove to be just as if not more influential over the coming decade as well as those to come. As Bill Warren has noted in his outstanding book on 50s science fiction movies, Keep Watching the Skies! , it’s very easy to overrate or underrate the film, both in terms of quality and influence. The name of Robert A. Heinlein on the script means that many literary SF fans will overrate it, and still others will underrate it, given his polarizing nature among the science fiction community. The explicit pro-capitalist message of the film means, of course, that many of those on the left will unfairly excoriate it while an equal number of those on the right will praise it somewhat more than they should. Sensible viewers across the political spectrum, however, will try to evaluate fairly based on whether or not it succeeds as a movie and how successfully it manages to get its message across, whether the viewer agrees with it or not, and from that perspective, one may cautiously consider Destination Moon a success.

 

When you try to look at it with an unbiased eye as possible, Destination Moon is a good film, not a great one, but still consistently intelligent and interesting in its ideas even if it doesn’t quite manage to maintain that consistency in its execution. With a single exception, the acting is fine, the seeming lack of energy or enthusiasm among its capable and well-seasoned cast is more due to the failure of the script to provide adequate characterization than any fault in the performances. Although Irving Pichel had a more memorable career as an actor than as a director, and the film does suffer some problems in pacing, he does manage to direct the space and moon scenes with a genuine sense of wonder. The film’s greatest flaw is that it suffers from a very obvious three-act play structure, and each act is progressively weaker and less interesting than the next, when they should develop and grow stronger. Certainly, the first act is the most interesting as a reflection of not just the political thought of the day, but Heinlein’s own political thought, and that’s what I’ll concentrate on here.

 

The film opens with the disastrous testing of a government rocket. Scientist Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson) suspects sabotage, given that four years of research and evaluation meant that the test should have been flawless, but as General Thayer (Tom Powers), who initiated and guided the project solemnly, tells him, they won’t have a chance to find out. “Things like this mean military cuts, boy. Research is going back to the laboratories.” Nonplussed, Cargraves simply replies that he is as well. We then cut to industrialist Jim Barnes (John Archer) returning to his civilian job at his self-owned eponymous aircraft company. When General Thayer drops in for a visit, he wastes no time getting to the point: It is absolutely essential that the United States not just get to space first, but be the first to land on the Moon, whether it be by atomic or chemical-fueled rockets. At first, Barnes displays the expected skepticism: “I’m just a plane manufacturer, not the Department of Defense. The answer’s no. N-O no.” But he suddenly shows interest when Thayer describes the new atomic engine Cargraves has been working on. When he asks why the government hasn’t tried to take it over, Thayer gives him a straight answer, and it is here that the main political message of the film is most forcefully expressed: “It’s peacetime Jim. The government isn’t making that kind of appropriations. When it needs the rocket one of these days, and it’s not ready, then government will do the job. And they’ll turn to you, to private industry, to do it! Government always does that when it gets in a jam, it has to! This time, I figured we might be ready for the government. Preparedness…isn’t all military Jim.” The problem, as Thayer sees it, isn’t the lack of money, but the lack of brains, a need to pool research and resources to meet the challenge. “But combined American industry, sparked by Jim Barnes,” he says “could put America on the Moon within a year.”

 

A successful pitch is made at a gathering of potential financial backers, with the aid of a Woody Woodpecker cartoon explaining the physics of rocketry (which clearly influenced David Koepp and Steven Spielberg when they used a “Mr. DNA” cartoon the explain the genetic engineering of Jurassic Park). Once Thayer establishes that the first nation to make a foothold on the Moon will be the first to be able to use it for military purposes, all arguments are settled, and the attending parties agree to finance the construction of the ship and the planned expedition. The ensuing montage of research and manufacturing, leading to the construction of the completed rocket, is halted when a predictably pesky fly lands in the ointment: the government announces it is blocking the scheduled rocket launch on grounds of safety concerns. They sneak by this simply advancing the rocket launch ahead of schedule. When their radio operator is felled by a bout of appendicitis, mechanic Sweeney (Dick Wesson), who has already been trained in the use of the equipment, is hurriedly assigned as his replacement. Even after the launch, not all goes smoothly, as mishaps both during the voyage and after the landing threaten both the success of the mission and the lives of the crew.

 

You may have noticed that the plot synopsis of the film concentrates mainly on the first act and that each subsequent act gets less and less discussion and description. This is not accidental; even though the first act of the film is relatively brief, it’s also the most interesting, and it’s also the section that’s the most decidedly Heinleinesque, featuring dialogue and themes redolent of Heinlein’s previous stories. It’s fascinating to watch the interactions between scientist-engineer Cargraves, industrialist-entrepreneur Barnes and military veteran Thayer, who together represent the classical Heinlein Trivium of Science and Technology, Business and Industry and The Armed Forces, whose collaborative efforts are not only necessary for a Moon mission, but for the survival of civilization (a similar message is made in the even more classic The Thing from Another World where the military and science must overcome differences to work together to save the world from a common menace-in this case, a deadly space alien). Of course, conservatives and libertarians will likely appreciate the film’s ideas and approaches more than most left-of-center audience members, but even they will still hopefully enjoy the fact that this is the rare science fiction film to even engage in such provocative discussions. Destination Moon is one of the most avowedly pro-capitalist films ever made, remarkable for its optimistic view of the eventual triumph of the American Way of science and industry at a time when the national mood, still shaken by the Atomic Bomb, tended towards skepticism on the issue. Government is viewed not as a collaborator in Destination Moon but as a roadblock to technological and entrepreneurial progress; the best thing it can do to help the Space Race is get out of the way and let the Big Brains and Hard Workers do what they must to get the job done. Nor can even “The People” be trusted as shown when public protests over the alleged safety of the rockets threaten the program; one is reminded of the protests over the Cassini-Huygens space probe which threatened an invaluable scientific research project but fortunately failed. Although a collaborative effort, the success of the Moon project is shown to ultimately depends on the individual initiative and efforts of its members, and rigid collectivism is depicted as a roadblock to progress.

 

Additionally, Destination Moon takes the Jeffersonian or Whig stance of viewing the free market and other American institutions as intimately bound to science and technology. Ten years before Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address warning of the supposed emergence of the “military-industrial-science complex,” Destination Moon postulates such a convergence as a not entirely undesirable outcome of social and economic evolution. As Barnes tells the gathered businessmen, “To stay in business, we have to build this ship.” His words are certain to send shivers down the spines of both advocates of an entrepreneurial approach to space exploration and ideological purists lamenting the intrusion of the free market into the same, for completely different reasons. When someone interrupts to ask why the government doesn’t take charge of such an important and expensive project, he explains: “The vast amount of brains, talent, skills and research facilities necessary for this project are not found in the government. Nor can they be mobilized by the government in peacetime without fatal delay. Only American industry can do this job, and American industry must get to work now, like it did in the last War.” When someone points out that government footed the bill for World War II (part of Heinlein’s genius lay not only in letting views opposing his own a fair hearing, but in demonstrating those instances when they were equally sensible), Barnes replies “And they’ll foot this bill too, if we’re successful!” The argument it makes for the free market taking initiative in space exploration is not only an eloquent one, but seems to reverberate even stronger in these days of massive NASA cutbacks. Today’s Republican party might do well to study the rhetoric of this film to see how they might win back the votes of the nation’s scientists and technical professionals.

 

Ironically, although it helped to instigate the science fiction boom of the Fifties, Destination Moon’s most notable descendants aren’t science fiction at all. Both The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995) may be dramatizations of real-life events but they owe as much if not more to Destination Moon as any science fiction film that has followed. The Right Stuff, needless to say, does a far better job of depicting the details and nuances of the real-life drama and politics of the actual Space Program in its three-hour running time (and I admit to a bias here, as it is one of my all time favorite films), but Destination Moon still manages to do a fascinating job at portraying the inner dynamics of a potential space science research team (as did Arthur C. Clarke’s underrated novel Prelude to Space). In Apollo 13, which starred real-life Heinlein fan Tom Hanks, much of the suspense and drama comes not from the question of “will they make it home?”-we already know the answer-but watching the intellectual drama of technical problem-solving unfold, and seeing sparks fly as friction develops between extremely bright people in a highly tense, life-threatening situation with the entire world watching. A similar drama takes place in Destination Moon; in both movies, some of the most thrilling scenes come not from watching the heroes drift about helplessly in the void, but carefully whittling out math problems with the use of a side rule and comparing their results. The crises in Destination Moon are not solved through brute force but rationalism and resourcefulness, and in both films, these are traits that shown to be not just human virtues, but American values, ones which Heinlein extolled throughout his work, particularly his juvenile novels.

 

Even if one wishes the three primary characters in Destination Moon were better developed, they still have distinct and recognizable personalities that make them appealingly human; this is another characteristic of Heinlein’s writing that likely managed to survive the studio’s subsequent revisions. Unfortunately, we have that fourth character to worry about, and it is here that the rockets start to sputter. Seemingly intended as an everyman persona whom audiences would supposedly identify with when the need for a technical explanation arose, the cliched character of Sweeney instead winds up being abrasive, even insulting at times. Depicted as a stereotypical blue-collar Brooklynite obsessed with beer, baseball and hot dogs, Sweeney is played by Dick Wesson, who hailed from Boston, not Brooklyn, and sounds like it. As a result, he comes off as Milton Berle doing a bad imitation of Humphrey Bogart, and although it’s more the fault of the script, he’s a character that most audience members will react negatively towards instead of viewing as sympathetic. I suspect most New Yorkers will find this character as endearing as most Southerners find their similarly condescending depictions throughout much of the media.

 

The other three actors, John Archer (father of actress Amy Archer), Tom Powers (forever immortalized as Barbara Stanwyck’s ill-fated husband in Double Indemnity) and Warner Anderson fare much better in their parts, especially considering the conditions under which they laboured. Of course, they have the advantage of also having more likeable and interesting characters, and despite the criticism levied against the film for their lack of dimension, there’s more depth to them than one might realize. It is clear at the gathering of investors, for instance, that Barnes has more scientifically pure motivations for embarking on this venture than providing another notch on his financial portfolio. “I want to do this because it’s never been done. It’s research. It’s pioneering! What’s the Moon, another North Pole?” One wonders if he was Richard Branson’s hero growing up. Cargraves is one of the most realistic early scientist characters on the screen outside of biopics; he’s a family man at heart who has the most reluctance to go up on this mission, because it means leaving behind his wife (fifth-billed Erin O’Connor, who has about two minutes of screen time) and kids who he barely gets to see enough of as is. Most fascinating of all is General Thayer, the Prime Mover behind the Moon project. He’s the most clearly Heinlenesque of all the characters in the film, the archetypical “Old Man” who turns up as a motif throughout Heinlein’s stories who encourages competent individuals to turn their intellectual talents to tasks and achievements which will have long-lasting social good. At times, his semi-poetic musings are reminiscent of Rhysling, the bard of “The Green Hills of Earth.” It’s easy to understand why Cargraves and Barnes insist that he be one of those allowed to return to Earth even though he reasonably insists that as the oldest he should be left behind; it’s his soaring rhetoric that convinced them to go to the Moon in the first place and will convince others to return. Powers gives by far the best performance in the film; he plays his part with dignity but without pretension, so that his character comes off as inspiring and reasonable in his motives instead of strident or overbearing.

 

Once we get to the Moon itself, we start to see where the contributions of Heinlein ended, and those of other writers began. It’s not that the subsequent two acts are badly written in any way, but they are far less interesting given that the provocative political drama of the first act all but disappears for the rest of the movie. The astronauts actually do very little of dramatic interest during their trip, other than the soon-to-be cliched scene of a mid-flight crisis where one character starts to drift away helplessly while trying to repair a carelessly-greased radio antenna (it’s not surprising to find out this was one of the movies Arthur C. Clarke screened for Stanley Kubrick while they were writing 2001: A Space Odyssey), and even less once they reach the moon, besides the overlong climax where they find they don’t have enough fuel left and must lighten the load if they are to ever get home. Although the sets and backdrops are primitive by today’s standards, Chesley Bonestall’s matte paintings have lost none of their Sense of Wonder and the Moon landing itself is hauntingly photographed by Lionel Lindon (who would later win an Oscar for Around the World in Eighty Days and whose other genre credits include Pal’s Conquest of Space, The Black Scorpion, and episodes of Thriller and Night Gallery). There’s even some effective stop-motion animation used in the scenes of the astronauts walking on the exterior of the ship. Pal would make up for the lack of garish spectacle in this film with his subsequent films When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, and continue over the next two decades to produce some of the most memorable films in the science fiction and fantasy genres.

 

For the most part, scholarly analysis of Destination Moon has, like much writing on science fiction cinema of the 1950s, focused on the Cold War background of the film. With the recent shift in the space industry from public to private investment, it’s time for a reassessment of the film’s relevance to current events, as well as its other often-overlooked virtues. In spite of numerous flaws, the film is intelligent enough and assertive enough in conveying its message to merit serious attention from thoughtful audience members, and may also serve as a useful starting point for discussion on the roles both government and private enterprise have to play in the next step in The Space Age.

Book Review – A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

When a series of books spawns an award-winning HBO Series, I suppose one should take notice.  I have an aversion to popularity contests when it comes to books, but I decided to give this one a try.  I was not disappointed.

Probably the best thing this book does is get rid of a lot of fantasy novel norms.  The good guys are always good and the evil guys always evil being one of them.  This book dismisses that idea by giving each character both lovable and despicable qualities.  Even the honorable Eddard Stark of Winterfell in this book has his flaws: he has fathered a bastard child, he is stubborn and headstrong and to be blunt is not political in a place where he should be political.  On the flip side the evil characters do have some good in them in at least the form that many fight for their family.  Don’t get me wrong, the villains are indeed villains but they often surprise you  in some ways.

The novel’s literary form basically switches from character to character.  Each chapter begins with the name of the character that is the focus.  During that chapter the story is told from their point of view.  I find this is one of the best ways to tell a story other than to have just one person the focus for the whole story telling it from a first person point of view all the way.  The writer can keep certain secrets this way and pass time quicker simply by changing character.

The world of A Game of Thrones is has a  great medieval feel to it but is truly its own world.  Magic is this world, at least so far as this book has taken us so far, is subdued but you get the feeling that great power slumbers beneath the surface.  Religion and faith magic is very real but also subdued.  The creatures of myth are few and far between but you also feel that there will be more to it later.  This starts out as a simple medieval tale but as it grows the complication and the power is growing with it.  It is like seeing the begining of a long fuse lit, knowing in the end it is going to lead to a big explosion

This is where you can tell that George Martin was writing with his eye on a sequel.  This book only takes you through the beginning of the story and sets the scene for later.  It provides the needed early character and situational development that will be needed for the sequels.  Martin is also not afraid to develop great characters and then kill them off.  This is what give the book its realistic feel.  The good guys die and evil sometimes does indeed triumph from time to time.  Things are not always nice and battles are not glorious affairs but often brutal and bloody.

The story is intensely political.  The queen’s words: “you either win at the game of thrones or you die” are very true.  Honor in this world can be a real liability as well as an asset.  But the bad guys also have their bad moments as they often underestimate the good characters because they are honorable.  The weapons of this game are not just swords either; sex and intrigue also have their roles to play. Yep, this is an adult fantasy book so be advised if you see your eight year old reading it.

Are there some conservative themes?  Well, to George Martin’s credit, he does not create a world where women are equal to men.  Titles are handed down through the male side of the house and this is realistic for ancient and medieval societies.  One thing I could note from this is the simple fact that women’s equality is only as much as is allowed by men and this has always been true.  Not to say, that there are no powerful women in the book, but they do not achieve their power through claiming they should be equals but by simply being women in the truest sense of the word.

The other conservative theme might be the simple fact that one of the great causes of trouble for Eddard Stark is a lack of funds brought on by wanton spending by King Richard.  It is this debt that has put less than savory characters into power.  They are needed to constantly raise funds for these overindulgences.  Debt is never a good thing and brings out the jackals.

If the book has a downside, it is the simple fact that it is very long.  Be prepared for a long read only to realize the story has only started.  Things are definitely left hanging for the next book. So if you are the kind of person who wants to see resolution of a story in a single novel, you will not have it here.

All in all, the book is a worthy read that will have you ready for the next one.  Definitely worth the money and the time.

Movie Review: Frankenweenie

Movie Review: Frankenweenie

I saw Frankenweenie in a nearly empty theater on its opening weekend, and while competition from the already-successful Hotel Transylvania no doubt contributed to its financial disappointment, the morbid subject matter and the unfortunate fact that too many people nowadays refuse to a watch a movie made in black and white no matter what the actual quality were no doubt factors as well. That’s all the more the pity since it’s one of Tim Burton’s very best films, his funniest and most personal since Ed Wood and his most heartfelt and moving since Edward Scissorhands. In a vapid and disappointing movie year, it’s a genuine delight and something worth cheering.

Expanded from Burton’s live-action short, this stop-motion story of young Victor Frankenstein (yes, that’s his name although the movie doesn’t belabor over it the way Mel Brooks did) and his noble attempt to revive his beloved dog Sparky (NOT Frankenweenie- remember, the name of the book is not the name of the monster!) from his eternal rest is a true visual marvel. The character and set design have the same distinct look of other Burton stop-motion films such as The Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas, but this time, even more care and attention has been taken to the use of detail and perspective; like last year’s Hugo, this is one of the few films where the use of the 3-D format proves to be to the film’s benefit. The usual Burton influences of the horror films of Universal and Hammer Studios and Italy’s legendary Mario Bava are at play again but unlike most contemporary film makers who lazily re-film a scene or recycle particular cliches or motifs and call them “homages,” Burton is a director who realizes that the contributions of Mario Bava (who photographed most of his horror classics) or Karl Freund (Universal’s brilliant cinematographer on most of its horror classics as well as the director of The Mummy (1933) and Mad Love) are lessons for the aspiring film maker to study, not mindlessly ape, and that they can be applied to the medium of animation as well. There are direct homages, of course, not just, obviously, to the Hammer and Universal Frankenstein films, but to Gammera the Invincible, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (what’s a stop-motion film without a tribute to Ray Harryhausen?), Jack The Giant Killer, The Horror of Dracula, The Mummy (both Universal and Hammer versions, apparently), The Devil Bat and even Gremlins, which itself was an homage to Fifties science fiction classics. Talk about recursive.

What sets Burton apart in his homages is not the level of skill in which he accomplishes it or his recognition of historical priority (something which Gremlins director Joe Dante does better than anyone else), but the level of humanity and personal depth he puts into them. Frankenweenie is not merely a tribute to Burton’s favorite films and directors or his own early days as a beginning director and animator (Victor bears more than a slight resemblance to the hero of Tim Burton’s first commercial animated short, Vincent, and Sparky to the eponymous canine of “Family Dog,” the animated episode of Amazing Stories that Tim Burton and Brad Bird crafted), but seemingly his own life and childhood. “New Holland,” the town is obviously based on Burton’s own hometown of Burbank; the New Holland sign that greets visitors may mock the famous Hollywood sign, but the real sign isn’t that far away from Burbank itself. If Victor is anything like Burton himself, than instead of the oddball some may assume he is from his public persona or the characters we usually assume are his proxies, we get a nice normal young man who loves his dog, and just wants him, his own personal “Rosebud” back.

The movie continually surprises and delights us with the twists of its story as well as its visual ingenuity. Considering that Edward Scissorhands, after first establishing itself with a truly novel lead character and a beguiling mixture of both whimsy and visual inventiveness in the initial scenes, disappointed when it followed a painfully predictable story formula, the unexpected plot and character turns in Frankenweenie are most welcome, and credit must go to John August, probably the best scenarist Burton has so far worked with. When a student resembling Dwight Frye is introduced, we fully expect him to become Victor’s assistant, and he even attempts to badger Victor into making him so; instead, he winds up being one of the film’s main antagonists. This is true of the other kids in the neighborhood as well who, despite their own status as morbid outsiders, are not embraced as such, as one would expect from a viewing of the Burton canon. Instead, they’re treated rather like South Park‘s Goth Kids, viewed contemptuously for thinking that their acts of rebellion should be treated as anything other than acts of selfish petulance, in contrast to the obedient and compassionate Victor’s genuine sense of caring. In fact, they’re much like the children August adapted from Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when he wrote the adaptation for Burton, with Victor playing the role of Charlie Bucket. Victor’s parents, voiced by SCTV veterans Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara (both do multiple voices for other characters) aren’t allowed to fall into stereotypes either; instead of becoming subjects of mockery through depiction as bland 50s sitcom types that illustrate contemporary ignorance and prejudices rather than that of a previous era, they’re depicted as fully formed characters (no pun intended) who genuinely love their son and want the best for him. That includes letting him pursue his own interests but also letting him learn about the harsh realities he will face in this world, even if it will inevitably mean heartbreak and disappointment. Even the seemingly evil town Mayor (named “Burgermeister,” yet another Universal horror reference) is a character lent to surprises. When he is introduced, threatening to castrate Sparky with a pair of garden shears, and being nasty to his niece (Winona Ryder, who deserves a comeback, Robert Downey Jr. style), we fully expect him to be the lead villain, but his role in the denouement is not what one would expect. Yes, Victor may be misunderstood by grown-ups, but we later realize that grown-ups just want to be understood as well, and that learning to understand about life and death and other people is part of what this whole journey is all about.

The theme of understanding is wonderfully conveyed through what for me was the best and most refreshing part of the film: the avowed pro-science message. Frankenweenie celebrates scientists of all ages everywhere, and urges them persist against all odds. Victor gets his inspiration to revive Sparky from the school’s new science teacher (the delightful Martin Landau, again doing a Hungarian accent but not imitating Bela Lugosi this time) when he demonstrates Galvani’s electrical experiments on frog legs (which allegedly inspired Mary Shelley when she wrote Frankenstein). When a subsequent attempt to revive a different animal fails, his teacher tells him “Science isn’t just a matter of up there,” pointing to his head, “its a matter of right here” pointing to his  heart. Science requires intellect, but it also requires hard work, ethics, and commitment to a job and field you truly love.

The pro-science message takes a satirical edge when two of Victor’s classmates injure themselves working on their project, resulting in a PTA meeting where they decide that it’s not parental negligence or even the stupidity of their own children that’s at fault but science itself for injuring them! One parent bellows “Pluto was a strong and robust planet when I was a kid! Then science had to ruin it!” Landau’s teacher does nothing to help his cause, however, scaring them with his raving and ranting and insulting them by boasting that he will ensure that their children “will not be ignorant like YOU!” When Victor tries to comfort his dismissed teacher, Landau sadly mutters “People do not love science, yet they love what science brings them.” Watching these scenes, I was reminded of a friend of mine who built a homemade Tesla coil that lit up his small-town Wyoming neighborhood with six-foot tall arcs of electricity. That was in the early sixties; today, he’s a radio astronomer at one of the world’s leading observatories. A child today who attempted what he did would be in trouble with who knows how many safety and environmental laws. Not only is Landau’s teacher all too correct (check out how everyone from anti-evolution proponents to anti-GMO activists have used the Internet to spread their anti-science propaganda), but his explosive reaction at the PTA meeting also serves as a demonstration as to exactly why those of us on the pro-science side have failed to make an adequate dent with the public. Too often, we have resorted to ridicule, contempt or sheer nastiness instead of understanding and engagement, which only results in further estrangement from potentially receptive audience members. A movie like Frankenweenie that does embrace science and scientists and encourages its audience to do the same is a rare thing, and it’s a true pleasure to find such a message in such an unexpected place.

Despite my giving Frankenweenie my highest recommendation, I should give parents a warning. The movie will probably be too intense and scary for very young children, especially when seen in the 3-D format, and furthermore, those who own pets may wind up feeling extremely saddened or disturbed by some scenes in the film (and that includes those who own cats as well as dogs). It still may be a useful film to discuss such issues as death and mourning with your children.

 

Book Review – A Canticle for Leibowitz

Canticle – song used in liturgical services

When looking through the Hugo winners of the past I discovered this book as a winner. I wondered because one of the other nominees that year was Deathworld by Harry Harrison.  It seemed strange to me that Deathworld would lose to a book which I had never heard of at the time.  Having read it now for the first time, I would say I can understand the dilemma.  For my part it would have been close as both books are not only well written but imaginative as well.  A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. ultimately would have prevailed; I think, because it dealt closer with real life issues at the time.

The book opens after the nuclear holocaust that was so feared in the 1950s.  In many ways nuclear war at the time was not a mutually assured destruction thing.  It was not until the massive proliferation of ICBMs and multi warhead missiles that the nuclear war people theorized became the complete end of human existence.  In the days of bombs and bombers, most people thought humanity would survive but not civilization as we knew it.

The book takes place mostly around an abbey dedicated to Leibowitz who was an electrical engineer and a survivor of the holocaust.  The monks seem to indicate that he turned to religion after this to save what knowledge could be saved after the nuclear war.  The book is three parts that are separated by centuries of time.  The first part deals with the issue of getting Leibowitz canonized as a saint.  The second part deals with the opening of the knowledge of the abbey to the intellectual community.  Part three deals with the abbey and the church dealing with the fact that this opening of knowledge has led humanity back to the same end of nuclear annihilation.

From a literature point of view this is a remarkable well written book.  Its use of Latin and Hebrew is superb and adds to the charm of the book.  My Latin is not at all that good but I understand the beauty of it in this story.  The story is engaging although one character is never resolved – Lazarus the Hebrew.  Other than that, the book flows well and does not insult your intelligence.

The central theme is the interplay between science and religion.  The issue addressed is knowledge verses wisdom.  Sure we can do things with science, but does that mean we should do those things.  Asking the question of are we ever going to be wise enough to stop history repeating itself is one of the great things that kept me going in this book.  Tons of other sub themes and I strongly suspect that every time I would read this book I would pick up something new.  It is that good.  The ultimate saving grace of humanity is that the colonization of the stars saves the race from itself.

As a libertarian, I dislike it when people keep knowledge from advancing and yet at the same time I also know humanity enough to realize that at times we are not wise enough to handle what we know.  I think the book addresses this issue well and does not so much offer answers but gets you to think about the issue.

As a theist but Non-Catholic, I felt like someone who (because of ignorance) does not always get the joke but understands the message. Religion has at times been the preserver of knowledge, but it has also been a source of misery for not being practical enough or being too overly superstitious to realize when that knowledge needs to be released to alleviate human suffering.   At the same time, religious figures often cause people to ask themselves whether things are being done with moral understanding.  Double edged sword.

I definitely would recommend this book. It has an honored place on my shelf.  It is simply a very realistic view of  the science verses religion dichotomy during the rebuilding of society after it is destroyed by nuclear war.  It is intelligently written and I suspect I would like it even more if my Latin was better.

Next Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin from A Song of Ice and Fire.  Yes, I am reading something fairly new and I will probably pick up the first season of the series from HBO to watch and review as well.  After I read the books of course.

The Not-Quite Ultimate Adaptations

The Not-Quite Ultimate Adaptations

adaptive-ultimate-1

I concluded last month’s review of The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum with the wishful speculation that there might exist some alternate reality where Weinbaum’s stories served as a plentiful source of wonderful film adaptations. What I failed to note that is that Weinbaum has not been ignored by Hollywood; there has already been one theatrical release and three television adaptations based on his work. Unfortunately, one of these is lost, and the three remaining hardly do justice to the source material. Worse yet is the lack of imagination involved in the choice of material, for although one would hardly know it from the wildly varying titles, all four are derived from Weinbaum’s  “The Adaptive Ultimate.”  Although an excellent short story, it is hardly representative of what its author is most famous for (Weinbaum had it published under the pseudonym of “John Jessel”), and the adaptations that I’ve managed to have seen either diluted the source material or focused on certain themes present in the original story at the expense of others.

Multiple adaptations of a short story for television have actually been quite common, as Alan Brennert noted in his introduction to the anthology New Stories from the Twilight Zone.  For instance Cyril M. Kornbluth’s classic “Little Black Bag” has been adapted three times for television, the most famous of which was the one Rod Serling scripted in 1970 for Night Gallery, an excellent if loose adaptation. However,  there were two earlier ones, both of which I managed to see thanks to YouTube, an even looser adaptation that played on one of the earliest of science fiction anthology shows, the broadcast-live Tales of Tomorrow, and a partially surviving version from Britain’s own science fiction anthology show Out of the Unknown, and judging from what exists, it is both the most faithful and the best of the three adaptations. Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” often regarded as the definitive hard science fiction short story, has also seen multiple adaptations to both American and British TV and radio as well.  But why this particular story by Weinbaum should get so many solely American television adaptations, as well as a theatrical film adaptation, all within just an eight year time span with merely a two year interlude between each, remains a mystery.

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The first of the TV versions of The Adaptive Ultimate was produced for live drama series Studio One in September 1949,  just under 10 months after the debut of that pioneering anthology show. Unimaginatively titled “Kyra Zelas” (the name of the story’s lead antagonist), it was broadcast before the use of the kinescope to record live programming, and is hence lost forever.  The second adaptation, entitled “The Miraculous Serum” was also broadcast live on the specifically genre-oriented Tales of Tomorrow, but fortunately, by the time it aired in June of 1952, the recording of such broadcasts became commonplace, and it is available for viewing on YouTube. This version also boasts an impressive set of credits, whose names will be familiar to science fiction fans. Director Don Medford, who handled some 35 episodes of Tales of Tomorrow, would go on to direct some of the finest episodes of The Twilight Zone while Richard Derr, fresh off starring in George Pal’s classic When Worlds Collide, would guest star in episodes of Star Trek and The Outer Limits. Although Lola Albright is best known to the general public for the TV series Peter Gunn and such movies as Champion, A Cold Wind in August, and Lord Love a Duck, she also made the underrated 50s science fiction classic The Monolith Monsters, and guest starred in one of the best episodes of  The Incredible Hulk, “The First.”  But the biggest surprise to be found is the presence of Theodore Sturgeon as scenarist; as it turns out, the great writer had a long career writing for television since its earliest days. He was actually one of the main creative figures behind Tales of Tomorrow, and had also contributed scripts to an earlier SF anthology series entitled Out There which featured an even more impressive roster of of adaptations; among them were Robert A. Heinlein’s “Green Hills of Earth” and “Ordeal in Space”; sadly no episodes of this series appear to exist anymore. Sturgeon would later script some classic episodes of Star Trek, adapt his novella Killdozer! into a well-remembered TV movie, and near the end of his life, provide some scripts to the new version of The Twilight Zone. If Wikipedia is to be believed, it was Sturgeon who had helped co-conceive and pitch the whole idea of the Tales of Tomorrow TV show in the first place, making Sturgeon one of television’s unheralded pioneers.

Much of the problems present in the Tales of Tomorrow adaptation derive from the technical restraints that live television imposed upon it and other dramas of the period. The action is restricted to just a few sets, and the camera is restricted to as few movements as possible; when it does move, it does so clumsily, as in the embarrassing early shot involving a zoom into a clock. The actors all handle themselves quite well under the pressures of a live broadcast, especially the always-underrated Albright in the Zelas role (inexplicably renamed to the bland “Carol Williams”), who is excellent as a woman who nonchalantly does what she must to survive regardless of society’s rules and grows intoxicated power, although curiously, she’s far more attractive before her operation than afterwards.  However, what the actors need is a suitable teleplay, and the one provided by Sturgeon isn’t up to task. Excessively verbose, it rarely transcends the limitations of live television, consisting mostly of characters talking to each other at length, and the transition between the First and Second Acts is particularly jarring, as we aren’t given any reason or explanation as to how Kyra/Carol got to Washington in the first place.  Additionally, the Kyra/Carol character has been watered down from the original story.  In “The Adaptive Ultimate,” Kyra Zelas undergoes a full genetic change that allows her to adapt to any threat or situation; she not only become immune to any disease but can change her appearance and heal any wound instantaneously. In “The Miraculous Serum,” Carol Williams only changes psychologically after her tuberculosis is cured, and she hardly approaches the coldly calculating megalomania of Weinbaum’s Zelas.  Shortly after she is discharged from the hospital, Weinbaum’s Kyra Zelas brutally murders a man for his money, but Albright’s Carol Williams merely pickpockets one and then acts befuddled when confronted with the consequences of her criminal acts.  The entire production comes off as too pat, too restrained, as if Carol/Kyra couldn’t exhibit any of her abilities because the network thought they would lose sponsors if she did so (which was probably indeed the case).

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The last of the three TV versions of “The Adaptive Ultimate,” entitled “Beyond Return” and also available for viewing on Youtube (in two parts: Part 1 and Part 2), was made for Science Fiction Theater, one of the longest-running and more successful of the early SF shows aimed at a mature audience.  Today, the show is best known by younger viewers for being named-dropped by George McFly (Crispin Glover) in Back to the Future, where he mentions that it’s his favorite show.  Although temporal snobs will likely snort that the scene reveals just how desperate science fiction fans were in 1955 for TV show that catered to their needs, it was still intelligent and sincerely made, much more so than many of today’s genre series and franchises.  Science Fiction Theater was the brain child of Ivan Tors, who was very much like George Pal in many ways: a Hungarian immigrant who had a great interest in both science and science fiction, and who was described as warm and kind man by all those who worked with him, he was one of the pioneering producers of the American science fiction film.  In 1953, he produced the excellent The Magnetic Monster, a personal favorite of mine that is one of the few genuine examples of hard science fiction in the cinema, and followed it the next year with two more science fiction films, the underrated Gog, which is quite good in spite of its awful title, and the Riders to the Stars, which isn’t as good in spite of its great title, but still watchable. Tors made no more science fiction films after these, and instead went straight into TV with Science Fiction Theater.  Although Tors was admirable in his intentions, and his show produced its share of well-written and interesting episodes, it was also undeniably too timid in its approach to potentially provocative and interesting story lines, and ultimately undone by Tors’ own insistence that television be seen ultimately as an educational tool instead of a new vehicle for drama. When Rod Serling was quoted as saying that the difference between The Twilight Zone and previous science fiction and fantasy programs was that his show was going to be about people instead of “gadgets and leprechauns,” I have a sneaking suspicion that he was specifically talking about Science Fiction Theater.

This adaptation of Weinbaum’s story (puzzlingly retitled “Beyond Return”) , working with a larger budget and filmed instead being broadcast live, is considerably more faithful to its source material. Although faithfulness to the source material doesn’t necessarily mean a better adaptation, and the Kyra Zelas character has still been watered-down in her malicious ways to please the mores of the time and provide a happy ending, most of the best parts are still preserved, which is what matters most. The result is one of the best episodes of Tors’ series, well-paced and consistently watchable throughout. It is the best of two adaptations I have seen, and is probably the best of the three that survive. Much of the dialogue explaining the science behind the story is borrowed from the Weinbaum story (which was well over twenty years old at the time, despite the show’s promise that it was based on current science) and unlike the earlier adaptation, this one carry overs both Kyra’s newfound ability to change her appearance and physically adapt to new threats and surroundings as well as her increase in physical strength and aggressiveness.  Joan Vohs, an intelligent actress unfortunately stereotyped as dumb blondes during her brief career, is excellent as Kyra Zelas. In her initial scenes, she captures our sympathy immediately, thoroughly believable not only as a terminally ill woman but  someone who has been through the world-weary life of abuse implied in the story. After her character’s transformation, Vohs doesn’t go the Jekyll-and-Hyde route of trying to play a completely different character that a lazier actor would attempt, but instead makes it clear we are simply watching the same person undergoing massive physical and psychological changes, and enjoying them, as if they were payback for years of poverty and ill health.  Zachary Scott (in a rare sympathetic role) and Peter Hansen (who, ironically, had also been in When Worlds Collide) also handle their roles and dialogue well, but their characters have been diminished from the original story and fail to make much of an impression. And unfortunately, that’s not all that’s been diminished.

The flimsy characters were one of the main flaws of Science Fiction Theater itself: in viewing television as much or more of an educational tool as entertainment and giving greater weight to the scientific concepts themselves instead of developing the story around them, plotting and character development were often weak. At least five minutes of screen time that could have gone to the actual story are devoted to the opening featuring host Truman Bradley giving a bizarre demonstration on how the human immune system works using a fire alarm, and then showing off some lizards in a tank (an American chameleon shown turning from green to brown and a skink with a second tail) as examples of adaptation. Bradley also provides pedantic yet sometimes necessary narration to fill in plot details missing on-screen, although they conceivably could have been filmed had so much time not been spent on the overlong introduction. Predictably, despite much of Weinbaum’s own dialogue being carried over into the teleplay, some of his more intriguing ideas don’t make it.  Weinbaum’s importance to early science fiction laid not just in the quality of his writing but the ideas he contributed; he sought to provide a means to make his readers think about things they normally thought about from perspectives they did not normally approach them from. In “The Adaptive Ultimate,” he wasn’t just extrapolating from then-current knowledge of biological adaptation and genetics and providing the science-minded reader a means of thinking about Darwinian and Lamarckian models of adaptation, but wanted to specifically discuss human adaption, on both the individual and social level. This is all but lost in the Science Fiction Theater version of the story, and the only meaningful ideas that remain pertain to biological adaptation.

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I have not seen She-Devil, the sole theatrical feature film version of “The Adaptive Ultimate,” and it is in fact one of the few science fiction films from the 1950s that I still have not seen. In this case, however, I do not appear do be missing much, as all the reviews I have read indicate that it is the worst of the three existing adaptations. It is all the shame that it is so, considering that it stars the very talented Albert Dekker and was directed by Kurt Neumann, who also made the classic The Fly and one of my favorite unsung gems of 1950s science fiction, Kronos. It has been reviewed by my friend David Sindelar; I not only invite you to read his review, but to check out the rest of his website, Fantastic Films Musings and Ramblings. On a mission to review every science fiction, fantasy and horror ever made, he has so far succeeded in reviewing over 4,000 movies made 1895 and 1985. And he’s only getting started. She-Devil has since been very belatedly released to DVD, but I have not picked it up, and probably will not do so in the foreseeable future.

Despite all of these criticisms, one cannot be too harsh on all of these attempts at dramatizing a classic science fiction story, at least the television adaptations. Both were made with sincere intentions, and tried their best with the technical and budgetary limitations they were faced with, even if their scripts could have been improved. We should be glad they made the effort, and should hope that similarly sincere efforts at adapting classic works in the genre are to be undertaken more often in the future.

 

Looper and Judge Dredd a Double Review

Looper and Judge Dredd a Double Review

Two very different science fiction movies. One with a slightly ludicrous reason for time travel, but a movie that is at the same time thought provoking and filled with top notch acting. The other a gory action thriller which treats the futuristic elements as backdrop for the story rather than trying to push the story along with the backdrop (see the new Total Recall for the wrong way to do this). This was a good weekend for science fiction at the movies.  Before I get into the meat of the review I suggest you go watch both of these you should not be disappointed.

Looper

It is rare that a sci-fi movie can cause me to suspend disbelief and just sit back and enjoy it when the central scientific element is fatally flawed. Looper is that kind of movie. The central plot device in Looper is not believable on any level.  There are so many more efficient ways to use time travel to cover up murders than what is portrayed in the movie that it stretched credulity to the maximum for me. Then to add insult to injury the movie does not stick with it’s own continuity as the final resolution in the film is contradicted by what the film makers show you in the first half. These would be fatal flaws in most any other film. This is not the case with Looper.

While the time travel element of the movie is flawed beyond redemption the acting is phenomenal. The two main protagonists Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis bring the film to life. New comer Marcus Hester is another highlight of the movie. This child actor can act. While on the surface this movie seems like it is a action thriller and it has that element it is really a coming of Age movie. Joe the main character played by Gordon-Levitt and Willis is a fatally flawed individual.  He was sold by his mother to a gang and raised by a the leader of the local Mafia to become a hit man.  He seeks solace in prostitutes, and hard drugs. He is a selfish and childish man and while the older Joe (Willis) tells himself and anyone that will listen that his quest to save his wife (who is killed by the mafia in the future) is a noble one. The younger Joe (Gordon-Levitt) points out how selfish this quest is, since it involves the murder of children who may one day head the mafia. Young Joe gets to look in the mirror and doesn’t like what he sees. The movie concludes with Young Joe making the unselfish choice that his older self can not make and in that moment he transforms from the wounded child into a whole man.

Dredd

This is a complete 180 degree departure from Looper. Both movies share the same post apocalyptic urban landscape and both feature characters who are mutants, but there the similarities end. Dredd is a movie about law enforcement in the worst of all possible situations. I have long been a Fan of the Judge Dredd comic and this movie, unlike the Sylvester Stallone abortion, is a Judge Dredd film. The movie is about the first day on the job for Judge Anderson and if you know anything about Judge Dredd you will know she is Dredd’s sometime partner and a powerful telepath.  Dredd is a movie about choices, hard, quick, and decisive choices. This is not a movie for liberals. In fact this may be the most conservative film of the year.

The idea of making the hard choice is addressed early in the movie when Judge Dredd is informed by his superior that he must make the final decision to keep Anderson as a Judge or to wash her out of the program. Later as Dredd is preparing to take Anderson out for the first time he tells her that as Judges they can respond to only 6% of the crime in Mega City One and that they have to make the choice of what crimes to investigate. This theme of the hard choice runs through the entire movie. Making the wrong choice gets you killed, making the corrupt choice gets you killed, even making the right choice sometimes gets you killed, but you must choose.

The movie will resonate with those of you in the audience who have been in the military and in situations where you have been forced to make life and death decisions on just your intuition and best judgement. This is not a movie for wishy washy liberals, it is not a movie for metrosexuals, this is a movie that will speak to people who regularly read this site.