Saturday, May 21, 2011

After Earth (A.E.)

Suppose you take a story that begins with the destruction of Earth and the near annihilation of the human race by aliens. Given the depressing nature of such a premise, you decide to cheer it up a bit by hiring George Lucas to write the script as an action-packed space opera and then to turn it into an animated feature film with a top notch animation crew that combines the best hand drawn talent (a la Walt Disney) with the best CGI people (a la ILM). What you'd turn out with might look something like Titan A.E.

Titan A.E. is the only fully animated film in my collection (Tron contains live action). It only barely made the list, and I think it is there just because it's one of those very unique celluloid creations. I decided to watch it for the second time last night and would like to attempt to describe some of that uniqueness. The first thing that stands out is the animation style itself. It is probably the best integration of hand drawn and CGI work I've ever seen. The hardest thing to do in CGI is create convincing human characters, so why not just hand draw them and leave the space ships, planets, and the robot-like hostile aliens in CGI format? Motion capture is also utilized when animating people in space suits. In order to smooth out the integration, most of the immediate environments of the main characters are also hand drawn. Although you can tell which is which, it is difficult to notice where they meet.

Staying with the animation theme, it seems that the set designers in the film had a love for space-scapes and created several very beautiful scenes, even though most of it is not at all realistic. A swamp lake covered with giant glowing spherical "hydrogen pods" extending via a network of vines from the surface. A cave-like nebula dust cloud that the ship flies through accompanied by "wake angels", creatures that, similar to dolphins on a ship's bow, like to ride the "energy wake" of space ships.
"Ice rings" which consist of giant computer generated star-shaped crystals that continually collide with each other and crumble as they do. The crystals were done with CGI and feature detailed ray tracing on the reflective surface faces. The other scenes were yet another skillful amalgam of CGI and hand painting. All very nice eye candy.

In general, the whole thing was given a top billing production. The original score was a combination of classical and modern rock pieces as is common in modern animated dramas, but the plot and characters are just a bit edgier than your average family film. The voice casting was so well matched and well performed that I didn't even realize I was listening to the voices of Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore, Bill Pullman, and many others I should have recognized. In short, a lot of cash was spent.

I found myself less happy with the script on this second viewing. Although I love the colorful characters which are up there in stature with any Lucas creation, the dialogue and situations are really no more than you might expect from a typical pop culture animated feature. I like the originality in working the angle of humans missing the home world and feeling marginalized, even though it is a bit oversimplified. But the big flaw that tips it on its side is an attempted plot twist where a few of the good guys turn out to be bad guys. The revelation is too abrupt and too soon, and then one of them turns back into a hero at the end which is even more crazy. The villains are very one-dimensional - basically robots bent on wiping out the human race (sounds a lot like the Cylons from BG doesn't it?). But they have some real neat controlled plasma like technology that allows you to "melt" into walls and come out on the other side.

According to Wikipedia, it didn't do well at the box office and recouped only about half of its $75M production cost worldwide. I can understand why. They really didn't know what audience they were targeting. The heavy plot premise is a bit daunting to begin with, suitable for hard-core sci-fi fans. The space action and love interest sidebar between Cale and Akima targeted teens, and the cutsie supporting characters were portrayed as if targeting young children. For me, it is this juxtaposition of approaches that actually adds to its originality. But it also makes it hard to predict who might actually enjoy it and who might cast it into the trash in disgust. You'll never know unless you watch it for yourself.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Iconic Forbidden Planet

I'd never really taken much interest in the 1956 science fiction classic Forbidden Planet. I think the main reason is that the story plays more like a monster movie, the majority of which have no other plot than to just get scared, kill off the monster, end of story. In this case the monster is not even an alien or the result of some experiment gone wrong - it's just the manifestation of someone's mind. What really puts it into the science fiction category is the fact that it takes place in the future, on another planet, and the technology that causes the raucous was left behind by an alien race which we hear nothing else about except that they invented a bunch of cool gadgets. Change the mode of that last point and we could set the same story in any other place and time. But given the status of the film in the genre's history, I had to try to explore what it is that puts it there in the first place. So here goes...

You can't deny that the much of the appeal of the film, and also its subsequent influence, is attributable to the "look and feel" of it. The space ships, suits, and planet terrain all have that great 1950's retro look without feeling campy. The special effects were very well done for that time, particularly the animated layovers of the monster and the design and operation of the robot named Robby.
Robby was probably the first popular depiction of a robotic character that was friendly rather than fearsome, to be followed up in later years by the very similar looking robot from Lost In Space and of course, C-3PO and R2D2. Given the amount of money spent on production, it is no accident that they did a good job in that department. The robot costume continued to appear as various characters and cameos in many films following, up into the late 1980's. I also tend to wonder if the films references to Freudian concepts of the subconscious may have been more generally known and accepted in American culture at that time.

That's the extent of my prior knowledge, so I continue now with some gleanings from the Wikipedia entry. I've always known that the script was well put together from a purely literary standpoint, and it appears that's a generally held opinion. Some people see parallels with Shakespeare's The Tempest. This is made even more significant when you consider that most sci-fi films of the 1950's had pretty horrible scripts. Another thing that is mentioned is that it was the first film to take place entirely in deep space. I thought Buck Rogers spent most of his time out there, but maybe that doesn't count because it was a serial rather than a full length film. And going back to the special effects, it won the academy award for that year in the category. A sci-fi film winning for special effects? What else is new? It seems to me that what gives the film its status is that because it was such a well done movie in both script and production, it lent credibility to many of the story telling devices that would later be copied and used again and again. Force fields, transporters, laser weapons, it's all there. That kind of influence deserves some credit simply because of the osmosis effect. You can get a feel for the sets from the trailer below. Notice the Star Wars like introductory text moving off in the distance:
As a final follow up, I took the time to re-watch the film in its entirety. I found that I could enjoy it more as an adult than when I was a teenager, and I was able to notice a few more things that stuck out. The first was that there is no musical score per se. The soundtrack is a strange combination of electronic computer sounds, mostly resembling the computers of the 1950's. I'm not sure about its effectiveness but it certainly is unique. The other surprise was how cerebral the script seemed. Everyone was always giving analytical conjectures and explanations of things which were not particularly interesting and that kind of took away from the drama at hand. It was also interesting to see how future technologies were represented in that era when real thought was put into it. Imagine using a bona fide flying saucer as a future earth ship a decade later, after the flying saucer came to represent alien technology rather than human. In the beginning, the ship is supposed to be traveling at light factor speed, but when they have to land, they all get into this transporter like device which makes them disappear during the deceleration period. I thought it was very cool, since no script writers today even bother to tackle the g-force problem in high speed space travel. In this film, they created a new technology to take the humans out of the equation. The new device may be just as implausible, but at least they had enough respect for the audience to take it into consideration. Anyway, after this second watch, I would not change anything I've said about this classic piece of sci-fi film history.