Friday, February 25, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

This is the first time I'm going to talk about a film that hasn't opened yet. You've probably already seen the trailers for Cowboys and Aliens which is slated for release in late July. When I first saw it, I had one of those moments of realization where you think, "It's so simple, why didn't anyone think of it before?". There are many film genre's that are based on historical periods - Victorian, Medieval, World War II, Ancient Rome, even Prehistoric, and of course, Westerns. Stories that are set in these periods usually stick to their own historical turf, even though they are completely fictional. Once in a while, science fiction writers will dabble in these other genre's via time travel tales, where someone from the present travels back to an earlier era. But in that case, the story setting is really the present and includes only an intrusion into the past. The thing that really made me stop and think was that I still cannot recall any serious science fiction work that actually takes place in a former historical period - an earth period of course, not just "A long time ago...".


To some degree, this is understandable. Science fiction writers are a creative bunch, and they like having a blank slate to draw on. That is why many of their works are set in the future. Even in period stories where characters make early discoveries of known science and technology, because the discoveries are not new to the reader, these are not really classified as "science" fiction. On the other hand, alien invasion films, from War of the Worlds to the many film and TV offerings coming out just this year (Battle L.A., Falling Skies), are always classified as science fiction. This is because it is usually assumed that such an epic event has to be set in the near future, and that works better anyway because it gives the humans a fighting chance and hits closer to home. But if aliens are allowed to exist and visit earth in present day, there's no rule that says they could not have visited earth in some other time period. After a century of alien invasion films, someone has finally decided to give it a shot. And thank goodness it is not just anyone.

I am not surprised at the specific names I'm seeing involved. Among the many contributors, Spielberg and Ron Howard appear in the producer list (of about 15!), and Harrison Ford managed to get on the ticket. These are all people who know how to sniff out an original story concept. At least 8 people are named as screenplay contributors, including the guys behind Star Trek reboot and Men In Black. It's quite a big production. What they are trying to accomplish is not just a new setting for an alien invasion movie, but a merging of two film genre's. You can tell from the trailer that they want to duplicate the sets, style, characterization, and flavor of a bona fide Western. The point is to convince an audience that has grown accustomed to modern Western film making that they are in familiar territory so as to enhance the impact of the new material. Will they succeed in this? My guess is they could overdo it. With a production crew this polished, the tendency will be to try to iconize the look and feel but miss the texture. Witness the film title, which would sound truly corny if it weren't for the ground breaking nature of the material (and of course the graphic novel). It indicates that they are perhaps too aware what they are trying to do. But as I said before, I'm glad it's these folks rather than some nobody. It will give it enough credibility to pave the way for future experiments. I hope they can come up with a decent script. The fact that it was born from a graphic novel does not guarantee its quality.

There is one old film that originally broke ground in merging sci-fi with a Western called The Valley of Gwangi. Here it was the introduction of a "lost world" with dinosaurs into the wild west. You can see a clip of it on one of my earlier entries here. That's another idea that is traditionally classified as science fiction which could also be extended to other time periods. How about a dinosaur rampaging the Medieval World before anyone knew what dinosaurs were? Of course, they would most likely just call it a dragon. What about a Roman army going up against alien invaders? The door could be wide open now.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Deja Vu

I've recently realized a symmetry regarding the nature of time. It is illustrated in the graph shown at left. Under normal circumstances, you and I travel forward in time. Our relationship with the future is not that we know it, but that we move into it, we experience it. On the other hand, our relationship with the past is the reverse of this. We see the past through the eyes of our memory. We know it, but we cannot move into it. The paradoxes of time arise when you try to reverse either of these relationships. If you try to move into the past, you end up creating alternate histories that cannot co-exist with each other. I in fact wrote about the impossibility of backward time travel at length in a previous entry. Likewise, another type of paradox arises if we try to see into the future. Once you know what is to come, you then have the power to prevent what you have seen. This, of course, is less paradoxical than trying to change history. If the future you see does not come to pass, you can always argue that what you saw was never really the future in the first place. But the main point I'm making is that there are philosophical paradoxes associated with traveling into the past and seeing into the future, but there is no paradox associated with traveling into the future or seeing into the past.

Now the real insight for me came when I realized that the non-paradoxical scenarios could be stretched and extended and still remain non-paradoxical. Traveling into the future at a faster rate than everyone else is accepted by physicists as perfectly possible... if you are near a black hole or traveling near the speed of light. It may be a nearly impossible feat to actually accomplish, but theoretically achievable. Similarly, you can collect all the information you wish about the past without running into any sort of philosophical conundrum. The idea of seeing into the past never caught my attention as did the idea of traveling into the future because it seemed so ordinary by comparison. All you have to do to see into the past is spend lots of time in a library. With the help of video and audio recording you can experience the past as if you were actually there. But this whole attitude was turned on its head when I first saw the film Deja Vu. Ok, I know that's an awfully winded introduction for a movie review, but I had to describe all this before getting to the point because I don't think this film gets enough credit for the concept that it's writers so crisply and cleanly introduced to moviegoers. I think it deserves a little respect, and with that, on to the film...

The plot line of this film is quite simple. A ferry in New Orleans carrying over 500 Navy sailors, friends, and families explodes and kills all on board. Denzel Washington plays an ATF agent named Doug Carlin who is sent to investigate the accident. When it is discovered to be the work of a domestic terrorist, the FBI gets involved and, noticing Carlin's keen detective instincts, recruits him to join the investigation. Most of what follows is your basic who-done-it crime drama, with one interesting twist.
The FBI, it turns out, is using the case to test a new technological gadget. It is actually an area wide system connected to remote satellites that allows them to obtain detailed and close-up real time monitoring of any location within a certain radius. That doesn't sound too far from today's satellite technology, except that they are able to use it to monitor such locations at a different point in time, one that is about 4 days in the past. It is a type of time window, but they say they have no way to change the time range of the window. They can record what they focus in on, but they cannot move the window backward or forward in time, and it is video only. It is like being able to watch what happened 4 days ago as it evolves. It is impossible to view every location at once, so they must try to focus on what is important to the investigation. This is where Carlin's help comes in handy.

You might ask yourself, why not record everything and then sort through it after the fact? It is not a stretch for me to believe that the amount of data required for such a feat would be too huge to manage. Even if you could find enough storage capacity to hold all the information, it would be impossible to beam it to one location, whether direct or by satellite, at any usable rate. There is only so much bandwidth available and that restriction is based on the laws of physics. No, it makes sense that one would need to focus on specific locations at a time. Focusing technology does not suffer from such physical limitations. Why they can only see a fixed time period in the past is never explained, and of course is completely arbitrary, but it makes for an exciting detective story. Remember, they only have 4 days worth of history leading up to the crime that they can work with.

=================< spoilers below >=========================

Carlin focuses on one of the victims, a woman named Claire, who is discovered to have been killed before the accident and therefore might have come in contact with the assassin prior to it. If you like detective stories, there's a lot of good material here, but its more than just CSI style puzzle work. The writers really delved into the real time aspect of this time window system. One of my favorite scenes is a type of car chase. In the time window, the terrorist is driving the woman to his hideout outside the city, which is supposedly out of range of the FBI's system. They have an extender device in the form of a helmet with a visor that shows what is happening at your current location 4 days ago. Carlin decides to try to "follow" the suspect by driving the freeways with this helmut on. In the harrowing chase that follows, we see from the detective's viewpoint. One part of the screen shows the suspect's car that Carlin is trying to follow from 4 days ago, and the other part shows the current traffic in the windshield in front of him. The traffic patterns in both windows are completely different, making it a delightfully unnerving sequence to watch as Carlin tries to dodge the real cars, ignore the imaginary ones, and still keep the suspect's car in his viewer. There is one point where the cars stop and it appears like the killer is looking straight at Carlin even though that is really just coincidence. Nice touch. In fact, you can watch most of that chase sequence here.

As I mentioned, this whole system is free of paradoxes. But the writers decided to challenge themselves a bit more and allow objects to be sent back into the time window. There are only two instances of this in the film. The first involves sending a piece of paper to the desk of Carlin's partner telling him where to find the suspect. This ends up getting his partner killed, something that was already known to have happened but no one knew why. The detective blames himself. Once they catch the criminal, the second incident involves Carlin convincing the team to send him back so he can save Claire, whom he has begun to care about. They send him to a nearby hospital bed with the words "REVIVE ME" written in large letters on his chest. Very clever. Carlin ends up not only saving Claire but also preventing the entire incident from occurring. What is really neat is that here again, the writers have shown us everything that Carlin's time travel affected at earlier points in the movie. As he intervenes in the time line, you see and understand the reasons why everything was this way or that way when you saw it before, including messages he wrote to himself. In other words, we only ever saw one time line to begin with, except for the very beginning when the boat actually explodes. In the changed timeline, the boat is saved.

Personally, I consider it a really well crafted script. Not only does it keep track of the clues to the crime, it also keeps tabs on the alternate time loop so as to minimize the paradox effect. The only detail to tie up is the fact that two Doug Carlin's exist at the same time now. This is neatly handled by causing Carlin to heroically save the ship at the expense of his own life, leaving his alternate future self to meet Claire under more favorable circumstances, and leaving her as the only one knowing all that actually happened. The film did not do very well at the box office, so maybe there aren't as many people out there who appreciate a good puzzle as much as I do.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Total Lack of Recall

I am not ashamed to admit that I really hate most films directed by Paul Verhoeven. The main reason is similar to the reason I hate a lot of Stanley Kubrik's work, which is that these directors like to take the tools of cinematic art and use them to jerk the audience around just to make a point. This usually involves gross exaggeration, gratuitous sex and violence, and ridiculous attempts at satirical humor. But whereas Kubrik does this with serious intention, Verhoeven just likes to see how far he can take the joke without the audience catching on and then laughing behind their back. He's like the Andy Kaufmann of film directors. Verhoeven pulled this off to maximum effect in Starship Troopers, where his main target was our attitude toward the military and war films (and also Heinlein's book). In Robocop, I'm guessing his target was police action films. In Total Recall, I've recently begun to believe that he was targeting the Hollywood production machine. Before I explain that, let me say a bit about this really bad 1990 sci-fi action film.

I can't just skip over a film that was supposedly based on a Philip K. Dick short story, but I've heard that the film not only diverges from the book but leaves out most of what makes the story interesting in the first place. You can see seeds of Dick's ideas in the whole dream vs. reality themes that are explored, but I've learned that this script floated around Hollywood for many years but never got produced for one reason or another. It went through lots revisions and I don't suppose many directors wanted to get involved. I will guess that this created a situation where Hollywood had invested a lot of capital into trying to get this movie made and was quite frustrated. They were willing to throw a lot of money at it to get it done. I think Mr. Verhoeven saw this as just too tempting. His thesis on this project would be to illustrate Hollywood's tendency to think that the more money you put into a film, the better it will be. He would take a script by a respected intellectual author and turn it into an action bonanza complete with stupid one-liners and lots of explosions. He would get one of highest paid actors in Hollywood at the time, Mr. Schwarzenegger, chosen precisely because of how well he represented the high paid low talent Hollywood star. He somehow managed to have tons of money spent on special effects which more often than not turned out looking like cheap puppetry, toy models, and cartoonish claymation. He got them to pay big bucks for a nice Jerry Goldsmith score. He littered his screen with blatant product placements and lots of gore and violence while leaving a lot of plot points and story details in the dust. All this he did while keeping a straight face, and then laughed it up under his breath as the film debuted as number one at the box office and the Hollywood executives all patted him on the back.

Alight, maybe I'm being a little over the top, but I'll wager not by much. There is really not much worth remembering about Total Recall (no pun intended) except the possibility that its director was pulling a number on the executives, and maybe the audience, just like he did with several other of his films before and after. I'm sure I'll get some flack for this, but at least you can't say my perspective isn't unique.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Overlords of Mortis

As I mentioned once before, I have been faithfully watching the Clone Wars series which is now in its third season. They are always a treat to watch for reasons I explain in my earlier entry, but this week Mr. Lucas decided to go epic and create a whole new strand of mythology. It is such a great offering I had to just comment on it.

It is a three part sub-series of which two have already been released. The three main characters on the good side, Anakin, Ahsoka, and Obi-Wan, respond to a distress call which turns out to be some type of artificial planetoid in the shape of an octahedron. It looks more like a prison, which in fact it is, but is also a conduit though which "the force" of the universe flows and is somehow amplified. Whatever the explanation, it is a pretty freaky place. You have a trilogy of beings living there - one of light, one of darkness, and one that provides balance between them who is referred to as their "father". They are interested in Anakin because they suspect he is the "chosen one".

Now remember I'm comparing this with the entire Clone Wars series, not the rest of the sci-fi world from which it kind of rips off a lot of material. I could comment on the Avatar like floating rocks, the parallels with Christianity, Excaliber, and Greek mythology (Gargoyles and Griffins), or the fact the "chosen one" idea was overused even before The Matrix. But we love them anyway because they hit close to home. The fact is that the themes of this trilogy and even the animation and flying camera angles are just a step above the previous offerings. We even see visions of past figures both true and deceptive, and ones of the future.

It's not completely out of scope either. Since the early days of The Phantom Menace, the jedi have talked about Anakin being the the one who will bring balance to the force according to some ancient prophecy. He is put to a test here by these beings so they can decide if he is the fulfillment, one that requires he tame both the creatures of light and darkness, and he passes. Yet some events transpire which create an imbalance in the force toward the dark side. We of course know that this portends the evil days that are coming. It all has a rather mysterious flavor to it that is a nice departure from the norm. The story accomplishes the dual goal of revealing a new aspect of the mythology of Star Wars that is still anchored to the whole, while also chronicling a key set of events in its history. It is one of those rare glimpses into the world that began in Mr. Lucas' mind. It makes you wonder if it was grafted in recently or was there all along. The full episodes have been removed from the Star Wars official site, but the preview info is still there. And you can try the links below if they are still available:

    Episode S3E15: Overlords
    Episode S3E16: Altar of Mortis
    Episode S3E17: Ghosts of Mortis

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Fifth Element

Aaahhhh! Ok, ok, I'll do it. I'm practically dragging myself to write an entry about this crazy film, which I did enjoy watching the first time and again as I reviewed it recently. The reason this is so painful is that I'm accustomed to honoring works that hold some intrinsic value. The Fifth Element has little of it and yet I can't seem to shake it out of my head. It reminds me a bit of Hitchhiker's Guide, yet different. Alike in that in that it borrows elements from other science fiction movies, but more as a tribute than in any way a spoof. Alike in it's comedy, but more as a side attraction than as the main objective. Alike in its European flavor, but more French than British. And in addition, it aims at one point to convey a message about the worth of mankind being more in the way we love than in the wars we fight. Well, maybe that's stretching it a bit. But no matter what I may think about it, I can't seem to help enjoying it. As a film that claims such close kinship with the sci-fi genre, this has to be the place to write on it, and so I write.

This movie has guts. Its unconventionally flamboyant sets, costumes, and visuals work because of sheer creativity. Its cartoon-like characters work because they end up satirizing various aspects of human society. Its completely ridiculous mythological backdrop works only because it is designed to touch some place in your heart and soul. All the reasons why it should be bad, somehow end up working. And what is really weird is that it seems to flow naturally from the director's own style rather than feel like it was all thought out in advance. Maybe this is the first sci-fi film in which my recommendation would be to just sit back and enjoy it without thinking about it.

I have no desire to describe the story details as they are much better when viewed, except for one symbolism that I picked up at the end on this most recent viewing (small spoiler here). At the end, the five elements must all be opened in order to fight the evil force that threatens the world. The heroes, which include Bruce Willis' character Korbin Dallas, discover that each element stone must be opened by supplying it with a sample of itself - earth to earth, fire to fire, etc. In addition to the usual four elements of ancient lore, the fifth element is said to be a human being, a female, pure and innocent. We find that she is "closing up" with despair after learning of the evils of human history. She must be opened as well, and this is accomplished when Dallas confesses his love to her, which opens her heart and completes the 5-fold energy force to combat the evil. You see, the fifth element is love. The human being was just the "stone" that was meant to hold it. With themes like that, who needs to analyze?