January 2007 Media Reviews
by Rogan Marshall
SFRevu.com Column ISBN/ITEM#: MR012007
Date: January 2007 / Show Official Info /
It's a particularly slow month for the fantastic cinema on the big screen. The worst news is one of two simultaneously released heavily promoted family oriented literary adaptations: Charlotte's Web.
As most of you know, Charlotte's Web, from the classic E.B. White novel, concerns an unlikely friendship between a farmer's daughter Dakota Fanning and Wilbur, the runt piglet she rescues to raise as a pet. Eventually her father makes Ms. Fanning move the growing pig to Uncle Homer's barn across the road, a place full of other talking animals (an amazing voice cast includes Robert Redford, John Cleese and Oprah Winfrey), where Wilbur replaces his surrogate human mother with the wise, kind, big damn spider Charlotte (Julia Roberts). When Wilbur learns that as a farm pig, he is fated to be eaten, Charlotte decides to help save him by writing messages across her web, beginning with the cryptic, famous phrase, "some pig..."
To begin with, in terms of art or aesthetics or what the cinema "needs", this material has been thoroughly covered; both by the 1973 animated original, and its de facto remake Babe, a movie so good we all forgave it for borrowing its major premise. This actual remake has returned the favor; Wilbur sure looks and sounds a lot like Babe. I must admit the new Charlotte's Web features cutting edge talking animal effects; it's a slick, expensive production, boasting careful trendy style that should hold the attention of small children.
Unfortunately, the screenplay all this slickness graces is a tired slow piece of work that palpably evokes a vision of second-rate authorial hacks working from Nickelodeon-generated production meeting notes so detailed in terms of second-level agenda that they allow the writers zero creativity. You can tell that the script was written as much from producers' notes as from the book, because the adaptation simultaneously pursues two major narrative goals that are in part diametrically opposed (only one of which even echoes the original text).
On the one hand, the picture preaches to its presumed pre-teen audience on various topics with gruesome insistence and regularity, and little regard for "naturalism" in dialogue and character: for instance, while arguing with her father in the opening sequence, Dakota Fanning calls him "unjust" in a calmly righteous tone. But simultaneously the same target audience is being played on a crasser level, in a mode much and malignly popular in recent children's entertainment: specific incidents, plot points, and most of all, the sense of humor, are all geared to appeal to 5-to-8 year olds, largely on the reduced level that such kids themselves are capable of entertaining one another. Thus, the same child who deployed the word "unjust" in arguing to adopt a pet pig, then attempts to sneak the baby pig into school for the day, hides it in her desk and gets in trouble for it; how old is such an inconsistent child exactly supposed to be? Wilbur the pig, another character blatantly written so pre-teen audience members can closely identify, also alternates moments of precocious wisdom and childish stupidity in such a way that one almost gets the impression of two different characters playing alternating scenes.
The weak offensive sense of humor operates from a sitcom descended school of thought that reduces every character to definition by character flaws. Other than Wilbur and Charlotte, every talking animal is, a vast majority of the time, stupid, mean, selfish and self-centered. The combination of pushy heavy handed messages about mutual understanding, cooperation, and empathy, with a constant barrage of jokes based in farts and other bad smells, direct insults and other verbal disrespect, and various moments in which characters look or behave stupidly and embarrass themselves, unfortunately adds up to the sum total thematic statement, that it's okay for people to be stupid, mean, ugly, and selfish, as long as they're really "being themselves".
One doesn't have to look at it so closely, to be bored stiff by another expensive unnecessary remake, built to target a demographic, and, like most such Hollywood product, entirely lacking in real heart. (Do we dare to hope that the forthcoming remake of Bridge To Terabithia aims a little higher?)
The other big screen disappointment this month is Eragon, first in a projected trilogy, based on the bestseller by famously underage author Paolini. I haven't read the book, but friends tell me its muddled mixed hommage to George Lucas and J.R.R. Tolkien has been stripped down and simplified even further in this adaptation: in a standard faux-medieval fantasy world, Evil King John Malkovich has many years since eradicated the last of the Jedi – sorry, I mean flying dragonriders, once protectors of the land, who comprised the only real threat to his usurper's throne. The last dragon egg is stolen by rebels, and via dubiously contrived events ends up hatching in the possession of the title character, who then must journey with the help of Aragorn-surrogate Jeremy Irons to distant mountains to join the rebellion, learning his new dragonrider's magic powers on the way.
(Though I've covered the derivative plot to my satisfaction, I have to pause to dwell on the mechanics of the relationship between dragon and rider, which, even more than most dragon-fetish fantasy, reek amusingly of Freudian symbolism: 17-year old Eragon takes his inarticulate non-flying baby dragon outside for the first time; the baby dragon flaps its wings, shoots into the air, instantaneously becomes full grown during its first flight, then returns to earth, to bow its head to Eragon, and say, in a sexy woman's voice, "You are my master." My, oh, my... should I giggle, or should I blush?)
Eragon, like Charlotte's Web, is a dubiously commercial venture; and in the broadest and strictest critical sense, this is a worse movie than Charlotte's Web – not just the script for Eragon is lousy, but a good deal of the execution fails as well, in many departments, which makes the failure likely to be largely the fault of an inexperienced unfocused director. The sets and costumes are nice, but the acting is almost all bad (particularly Speleers, who unbelievably surpasses Hayden Christensen as an annoying uncharismatic teen lead). The exception, Jeremy Irons, brings misplaced intensity and energy to this role; it's not the first time he's tried to carry a shaky genre picture single-handedly – probably Mr. Irons loves the genre just like we do. Most unfortunately, the dragon effects are weak; those with a thing for dragons are very likely to be very disappointed. (I'm not into dragons per se, but I have high standards for movie monsters: my favorite screen dragon is in Dragonslayer; my second favorite is Fritz Lang's, in Sigfried.) Bad style and form in camera and cutting irksomely emphasize every other weakness; like many Conan ripoffs produced twenty-five years ago, Eragon is so consistently a hack job, you can't forget it for a minute.
Nevertheless, Eragon is obviously the work of people who love genre fantasy. While Mr. Irons and the production designer are the only ones really making it work, it's plain to see that the rest of the losers comprising the main creative elements here, are dedicated to having fun, and making it fun for us, even if they mostly fail. This movie may be bad, but at least it's earnest.
On video the big news is a widescreen DVD edition of the nearly-forgotten 1969 Ray Bradbury adaptation The Illustrated Man. This movie presents confusing, dark, humorless adaptations of three stories from the Bradbury collection – "The Veldt" and two others (unnamed in the credits!), all SF stories set in various futures – framed by interludes adapting and expanding Bradbury's framing device about a Depression-era hobo whose magic tattoos come to life and tell the stories, played way over the top by Rod Steiger, showing off great body art and a wacky Cajun accent.
I had high hopes that 1969, the year 2001 and Planet of the Apes opened, might have been a year in which any merely decent SF production would have been unduly ignored. Boy, was I wrong: this is a very mediocre movie. (Its director Jack Smight later sealed his reputation with genre fans, by mangling Roger Zelazny just as thoroughly, in directing Damnation Alley.) The script by Howard B. Kreitsek doesn't capture an iota of Bradbury's spirit, and at least two of its four stories (counting the frame) have been restructured so their endings don't twist and punch like they're supposed to. (One ends so puzzlingly, it seems like part of the movie is missing... ah, the psychedelic sixties.)
Making an adaptation from a screenplay with no respect for its beloved source material is a typical Hollywood problem; but even if you're not a Bradbury fan, this is a ponderous unpleasant mess, because the director seems determined to misunderstand the SF genre as an opportunity to explore creative impulses that don't really work. For instance, during less than two hours' running time, The Illustrated Man spends 55 minutes on the frame story, most of which is Rod Steiger endlessly chewing scenery, with no forward narrative motion to speak of; it feels like wading through a particularly self-indulgent passage in Steinbeck or Faulkner. Another truly bizarre decision: the same three cast members play the leads in all four stories; they also retain, throughout four separate narratives, the same given names (Carl, Will, Felicia). If I hadn't read the book, I would've spent the better part of the movie thoroughly confused... I'll conclude with the same statement I made at this site regarding another Bradbury adaptation (the Hyams picture A Sound of Thunder): even completists should keep one eye closed while watching this one.
Another recent DVD release that's pretty close to utterly execrable, at least as "a science fiction fantasy" (which is how it bills itself), is Werner Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder. Working in his experimental documentary mode (hitherto the source of some fine work, including Lessons of Darkness and My Best Fiend) Herzog has united some dull NASA footage, some exciting Antarctic diving footage, and a handful of celebrity scientist interviews on the subject of intergalactic travel, by interconnecting them with a dozen scenes in which Brad Dourif, standing out in the desert and directly addressing the camera, improvises a good deal of ranting in a science fiction "mode," which is apparently intended to "fictionalize" the documentary material and tie it together. (For instance, underwater Antarctica, we are told, is Brad Dourif's distant home planet.)
The Antarctic footage is rich and strange; but the improvised "script" will offend and disturb any science fiction reader. It's obvious that Herzog – who, by the way, is one of my personal heroes, so I'm not looking to say these things (I love Brad Dourif, too) – is the kind of outmoded intellectual who knee-jerk believes that all science fiction and fantasy is a snow-job for children and other mentally challenged parties; he allows Dourif to make little sense most of the time, and even to suffer awkward beats that another filmmaker would have kindly edited out of the improvised performance, because he figures as long as it's "science fiction fantasy", his lead actor can just babble whatever nonsense comes to mind about space travel and aliens, and it'll work out fine. If you're like me a Herzog completist, who also loves science fiction, do yourself a favor: keep the sound turned off, play music with the DVD like it's a silent movie, and fast forward through the scenes with Mr. Dourif. The "science fiction fantasy" element in this strange little production is nothing but a shocking embarrassment – Dourif's seriously wacky performance included.
One last new DVD release: a special edition of the 1993 TV movie 12:01, commonly known, where it is known, as the "serious" version of Groundhog Day (though Richard Lupoff, who wrote the short story "12:01" is based on, probably feels quite differently about the matter). 12:01 concerns a desk pusher in an experimental science corporation who via freak electrical accident becomes the only man aware that time has stopped and doubled back on itself in a loop of one days' length as a result of a particle accelerator test gone awry. As a Tuesday from hell repeats itself exactly over and over except for the hero's actions, and he tries more desperately with each repetition to change the course of events that leads to the trap he's in, the tone of this well-written movie smoothly shifts from comedy to thriller, with a charming if syrupy romance threaded neatly through its narrative center. While its time travel logic is riddled with the kind of holes that gape large on second viewing, 12:01 is still pretty fun, if you only watch it once... ironically enough.
Next month I'll cover, among other things, Children of Men, which the advance word claims is an even better "grownup" SF movie than The Fountain... let's all keep our fingers crossed.