Media Column - January 2008
by Rogan Marshall
Review by Rogan Marshall
SFRev.com Essay ISBN/ITEM#: MC012008
Date: 12 January 2008 /
For Christmas we moviegoers who are also science fiction and fantasy fans got more of the same: high-profile literary adaptations and dubious monster movies.
The good news is that I Am Legend, adapted from Richard Matheson's modernist vampire classic (which was originally filmed in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth, a drive-in cheapie with Vincent Price, and then remade in 1971 as The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston and a tone of heavyhanded unintentional camp) is simply excellent, despite the extensive reconstruction the story has undergone to update it for a fresh, contemporary context. That's aside from any rewrites turning a script into a Will Smith vehicle might require; and of course, we science fiction readers are still righteously upset with Mr. Smith over what happened to a certain Isaac Asimov "property" when it underwent Smith-izing a few years ago.
(And just who is the smart, cool reader in Will Smith's corner who put Asimov and Matheson on Smith's desk to begin with? Is Will himself "one of us"? If so, what's next? Will Smith as Gully Foyle? Or maybe just a Lensman? Or, Smith plays Smith: as in, once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael ... I know, you didn't open this page so I could frighten you. I apologize, and I'll get back to recommending movies.) I Am Legend, unlike that unfortunate Asimov "adaptation", is a sharply focused piece of work; details of the story this movie tells do, true, substantially differ from Matheson's original novel, but this is one of those rare examples of such Hollywoodization energizing a text rather than merely digesting it. (There's a witty vampire joke in there somewhere, but I'm already way behind deadline and don't have time to look for it.)
In I Am Legend an opening scene and a series of flashbacks gradually inform us that humanity was wiped out three years since by a viral cancer cure gone awry, reducing the few survivors to light-sensitive blood-eating monsters that readers of the novel will think of as "vampires", while moviegoers will scan them as "zombies". (Typical of its surprising maturity and restraint, the screenplay for I Am Legend refrains entirely from using either word.) As the movie begins, Dr. Robert Neville, played by Will Smith, lives alone with his dog in deserted, decaying New York City; he spends his nights hiding from the human monsters he will later refer to as "dark seekers", and his days not hunting and killing them, as in the novel, but desperately seeking a cure for the virus that created them, using his own immunity as a basis for blood work that requires him, among other things, to capture infected human subjects to experiment on.
It would be a shame to tell you much more about a story which is drawn in bold simple strokes, easily recapitulated, but which don't resonate in summary like they do in the movie, and really, if you love science fiction enough to hang out where you are as you read these words, you ought to see this one. Written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, the screenplay for I Am Legend is a rare piece of work; like that for last month's hit Beowulf, it magically works both as Hollywood programmer and as literary adaptation.
Dare I hope that fantastic filmmaking aimed at intelligent adult audiences is becoming fashionable? It may be so: I Am Legend is not only cleverly written, produced in fine style, directed with good taste; it's a quiet, sad, and subtle movie, which tangibly adopts much of its structure and treatment of character and theme from classical tragedy. I Am Legend handles itself with utmost gravity, as both character study and cautionary satire. I'm sure all the other reviewers have noted the haunting power of this movie's images of New York in weedy ruins; powerful and haunting are words that also characterize the movie, as a whole.
While I Am Legend does occasionally explode into action, as expected, we the audience are never allowed the luxury of enjoying such violence, as visceral entertainment, while it's happening. I've seen movies in this subgenre executed with intelligence before, and possibly even heart, but none has ever taken death as seriously as I Am Legend, in which even a dog's life is treated with a respect that's almost spiritual. While it's traditional, in monster movies, to withhold glimpses of the monsters until the height of the second act, I Am Legend actually pushed me into such close empathy with its main character that I actively dreaded such glimpses by the time they began to occur, which is, I think, another unique trick for a movie in this (ahem) vein.
It's nice that I Am Legend has all these rare positive qualities, and also, maybe more so, that the big mainstream audience this movie is intended for seems to be readily embracing them. Intelligence, and maturity, and real thematic and/or satirical content, are always hailed as positive qualities in genre film by us long-time fans, because while they seem to occur naturally in much published prose fantasy and SF, they remain woefully rare at the movies. Won't it be nice, if such ideas do become part of a new "wave" in Hollywood fantastic film – and nicer still, if Will Smith makes up for I, Robot by becoming a distinguished motive force in such a wave? (Dare to dream big, right?)
You've probably already heard this month's bad news, by (that bugaboo of studio marketing executives) word-of-mouth: The Golden Compass, the loudly publicized commencement of a projected series of Philip Pullman adaptations which New Line has dressed to repeat the success of their Tolkien trilogy, is such a resounding aesthetic and commercial failure that New Line probably won't produce the promised sequels after all. (Which is a shame, because the Pullman books are really interesting, and we could at least hope the movie adaptations might improve, sequentially, like the first three Harry Potter movies did, or the second Star Wars trilogy. ... Oh, well.)
The Golden Compass takes place in an alternate universe parallel to our own in which details of geography, culture, and related matters distort or compress several hundred years of European history as we know it, and the laws of physics radically differ from those we know. For instance, there are some talking animals, like the barbaric armored ice bears rumor has marauding human explorers in the Arctic North; also, and more central to the story, each human character is invested with a permanent talking-animal companion, a "daemon" that is essentially an externalization or projection of that person's "soul". (People's daemons also have given names different from the humans they're almost literally attached to, which is how it worked in the novel, too, but which confused me in both places, as it seems to me that in a world in which every person has a constant animal companion, giving such creatures separate given names from their human attachees would be completely unnecessary, though maybe the kind of guys who write fantasy novels, who probably enjoy making up extra given names, would tend to differ with me on this point.)
These creatures, the daemons, are intimately but obscurely connected to the activity of a metaphysical subatomic particle or force called Dust, which Pullman's Catholic Church-by-proxy, the Magisterium, would prefer polite company refrain from even openly discussing. That doesn't prevent the Magisterium from conducting secret research into the subject, research that entails the mechanical mangling of the spiritual connection between immature daemons and the children they're attached to, children who've been kidnapped by the Gobblers, or General Oblation Board, headed by villainous political manipulator Mrs. Coulter.
That comprises much of the fascinating background, while most of The Golden Compass, from scene to scene, concerns itself with the episodic rite-of-passage of winsome tomboy preteen heroine Lyra, an epic journey that partially unravels the above matters along the way, throughout which Lyra secretly guards the title instrument: the last "alethiometer" in existence, as the Magisterium has destroyed all the rest of them, though the movie doesn't do a very good job of explaining why or how Lyra uses the device to invoke visionary episodes, which the movie tends to use to muddle matters even more, though they're apparently intended to give the user divinatory advice.
It's a shame that I'd rather not dwell on, that The Golden Compass is so confusing and messy and dull; particularly so as the movie's positive elements, not to mention the heavy-handed publicity and the novel's deserved cult following make it pretty much a must-see for fantasy fans, even if it is a disorganized bore. The movie is beautifully designed, particularly notable for eye-popping alternate history European architecture (which is entirely an elaboration on the novel; Pullman doesn't concern himself with architecture much, though he does mention otherworldly foods quite often). The Golden Compass also has some cool performances; Nicole Kidman is a peculiarly perfect Mrs. Coulter, and Daniel Craig (the new James Bond) plays Lord Azrael, and the girl in the lead isn't bad either, though the lousy screenplay doesn't give any of them much to say or do, unfortunately.
In fact, everything here works OK, except -– and it's so key! –- the screenplay. The screenplay for The Golden Compass almost holds together for the first hour, and after that, it fails more or less completely. It's sadly clear that screenwriter Chris Weitz, who also directed this movie, has failed to understand a genre entirely unfamiliar to him(?), not to mention the strange, complex Pullman novel he adapted, which he all too obviously perused but lightly, or he would have understood better how to find a good movie in it, though admittedly it would've been quite the task for any screenwriter, as The Golden Compass is, indeed, a strange, complex novel. (And the producers at New Line passed over a Tom Stoppard script to commission this one? For shame!) More than any other movie I can think of, The Golden Compass resembles the first, worst version of David Lynch's Dune; such wonderful design, such fabulous casting -– if only the story seemed to be headed somewhere! If only these great actors had something to say! Nobody likes it when I'm forced to ridicule a movie, especially a movie that has Nicole Kidman, talking animals, and dirigibles in it, sometimes all in the same scene. ...
... so I'll move along to the DVD player (in the process neatly dodging those monster movies I mentioned in my header, movies I recommend you dodge as well). As I mentioned a few months ago my desk has been utterly overwhelmed by an unceasing torrent of genre-related DVD releases, many of which are vintage titles, many of which are "independent" (genuinely so, mostly underground or regional) productions. I'm not absolutely positive, but I'm pretty sure that it has become physically impossible to cover, hell, to even glance at, every relevant title; I'm only making my way through about a third of the recent average of ten to twenty releases a week (and I don't count every anime and television title). I could rant at some length about the wonder and horror inherent in such a situation (especially for an obsessive completist like me), except there really isn't room here to so indulge myself; I'm constrained to recommending the best things I have managed to see, and I can only ask (please!) that my readers go out of their way to email SFRevu, and/or append a comment to this column, if you see something good that I miss; I hate it when good movies slip past me.
Two genuine no-contest all-time-best-list qualifiers have undergone recent DVD special-edition releases; most notably, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, if only by virtue of the fact that this Criterion Collection DVD is the first widely available video edition of this classic, ever. (There was never a VHS release, though there was once a 12-inch laserdisc edition.) Made several years before 2001, Robinson Crusoe on Mars never achieved the wide wild success of the Kubrick/Clarke picture, so it fails to receive (from critics and public alike) the accolades it probably deserves at least as much, as a breakthrough and enduring high watermark for realistic movies about space travel.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars begins inside the first manned spacecraft to approach Mars; when their orbit is disturbed by a passing meteor, the two astronauts inside must crash-land on the planet, an ordeal only one of them survives. Paralleling the plot of the classic Defoe novel referenced in the title, the movie carefully documents the lengths the marooned astronaut must go to to survive on the surface of a hostile planet; securing an air supply, as well as food, water and shelter, seems to be his biggest problems -– until he finds out he's not alone on Mars ...
Robinson Crusoe on Mars was the dream project of screenwriter Ib Melchior, whose more famous genre credits include The Angry Red Planet and Reptilicus; it was directed by effects producer Byron (the original War of the Worlds) Haskin, who shared with Melchior an ambition later echoed by the Kubrick/Clarke movie mentioned above: to create the first serious and realistic science fiction movie. (It's interesting to note how many parallels occur between the two movies, on a detail by detail level, just by virtue of their similar creative starting points.) The rocket science in this movie was cutting edge for its time; so was the conception of Mars, as well as the design and special effects, which are often hokey by contemporary, digitally enhanced standards, but also, much of the time, breathtakingly beautiful by the standards we use for any art. Those of my readers who are young enough to not know what can be done with matte paintings might take Robinson Crusoe on Mars for a primer; the painted Mars-scapes, which accompany extensive location shooting in Death Valley, are genuinely otherworldly. This movie also does a great job of romanticizing space travel, if you, like me, happen to be young enough that the idea of getting stranded on another planet isn't intrinsically romantic already.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is fiercely dated, in ways, but it's still a pleasure to watch; in particular, the extensive "Martian odyssey" comprising the picture's climax, during which the astronaut and his alien "Friday" trek on foot to the Martian icecap through an astonishing gallery of alien landscapes, remains eerie, absorbing, and beautiful. This Criterion Collection disc is also heaped with interesting extras, including an excellent little documentary about the history of fictional representations of Mars, which includes glimpses of famous paintings by Lowell and others, glimpses that the wondrous technology of the DVD player allowed me to pause and zoom in at will and at length. The disc also includes a text file with long excerpts from the first version of Melchior's script, which was three hours long(!), and included many many more monsters than the movie they actually made. (Don't know what impression I'm giving anyone else, but personally, I'm starting to feel like maybe I'm not so much a movie critic as I am a monster critic.)
Another SF classic available in a new special edition is the animated French masterpiece Fantastic Planet. This is a movie I know and love so well that it's hard for me to write about it; I wish I could just hand out copies (and certainly copies are readily available, as this movie only rarely falls out of print; though the new Accent Cinema edition has great extras, including a new interview with director Rene Laloux, and his brilliant short film The Snails). In the far future, humanity has been entirely displaced from our home planet, conquered by aliens who apparently failed to note human civilization entirely; the giant humanoid Draags treat humans much like the mice that the size relationship recalls, allowing children to keep them as pets, while holding public debates over the problem of rapidly breeding wild humans infesting Draag parks and wilderness. This is all seen through the eyes of hero Terr, a Draag pet whose adventures begin when he escapes from his owner into the wild, bringing with him a stolen educational device that will allow the wild humans he joins up with to learn Draag language, and history ...
... but no description of the plot can prepare you for the startling unique beauty of surrealist Roland Topor's design. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Fantastic Planet manages to make you feel like you really are visiting an alien world; key sequences in which the human characters wander past or through the operation of odd alien ecologies (yup –- monsters again) are unique in all of fantastic film, and helped to earn this movie a key award in the main competition at Cannes, an accolade itself unique for an animated feature. I can't recommend this movie highly enough; if you've never seen it, do yourself a big favor and browse somewhere nearby, right now, for images from it; once you see what this movie looks like, you'll end up ordering a copy and eagerly watching the mail for its arrival, I guarantee it.