How quickly we forget…

October 16, 2010

In a recent interview with Christopher Nolan, the first question asked was, “Where did you get the idea of being able to invade the dreams of others [the concept for Inception]?” Nolan went on about his fascination with dreams and creating worlds and blah blah blah, but come on … Dreamscape, anyone? Does no one remember there was a film in 1984 with the exact same premise?

The reference might a little obscure for this world, but that’s a normal response from someone like me because I have this fascination with idea genealogy. And I don’t say that to denigrate Inception. It was a good movie, not great like Memento, and it gets a little extra praise for being much smarter than the average blockbuster. Regarding its concept lineage, Inception is to Dreamscape as Alien is to It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Not to say that Inception is in any way of the quality of Alien, but in both cases, they transcended what could be considered their “source material.” The ideas were out there, floating in the Noosphere, plucked by these creators and made into something more, something greater than what they had been.

And, one final caveat, I am not intending to denigrate Dreamscape either. It was good film of mixed genres, and the great Max von Sydow had the best metaline to sum up the movie as well his character’s motivation in it – “I’m doing this because it’s fun.” Dreamscape was a fun movie. Thing is, I don’t remember anyone gushing about Dreamscape‘s originality. As far as I can tell, no one asked David Loughery, the Dreamscape scribe, where his ideas come from. The movie fell into the Atwood trap of being “science fiction,” which as we know is about lizard men, as opposed to “speculative fiction,” which is appropriate for intellectual examination.

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Et tu, zombie?

August 21, 2010

In light of the recent zombie-related story posted a week back, I thought it might be a good time to look at the concept of the zombie in popular culture. Given the zombie-like devotion to vampires right now, I figure another classic monster category is due for an upswing.

Like so many other classic “monsters,” the “zombie” category in books, movies, etc., has been slowly expanding its definition, perhaps more than any other and especially in the last ten years. What used to be the exclusive territory of the mindless, flesh-eating walking dead has broadened to include a variety of afflictions.

For example, the recent remake of The Crazies generally falls into the zombie category, but the threatening hordes are alive and they don’t eat human flesh. In fact, it seems the “zombification” agent served merely to amplify people’s innermost violent emotions so that the afflicted would pursue revenge fantasies they harbored in life (where it is revealed that high-school principals dream of stabbing their students with a pitchfork).

[Fair Warning: this post contains some adult language and spoilers for several movies, including The Crazies, Shutter Island, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. If this warning scares you, read no further.]

I don’t have a problem with this expansion of the category – but I do think we need to start finding new endings for zombie/apocalypse/pandemic stories. Today’s Hollywood writers have only a handful of ending options in their bandoliers, and an astute viewer can see them coming before the movie is half over.

One, end of the world (implied or real) as the threat continues to spread after a failed attempt to contain it. The containment is invariably draconian, usually with a nuclear explosion. The Crazies (and the sad AVP:R) falls into this category. I think The Return of the Living Dead pioneered this type of ending, at least in modern horror cinema, but even for that classic, I don’t consider it a very satisfying final.

Two, some ultimate “fuck you” from an indifferent universe – e.g., the last survivor from a night of zombie raids and carnage gets shot through a window by a bunch of rednecks. (If you don’t know the origin of that ending, you’re probably reading the wrong blog.) The Dawn of the Dead remake used this motif as the survivors reached the “safe island.”

Three, the protagonist(s) emerges on the other side of the immediate conflict to face either a hopeful or hopeless solution. This is really a variation on the first option, done with subtlety in The Birds and the original Dawn of the Dead, but lately it has become much more about cocked guns and swinging dicks with Ghosts of Mars, Doomsday, and (dare I say) Maximum Overdrive.

Fourth, everything gets better. Reserved only for “serious” fare such as Outbreak. “We found the monkey!”

Each one of these endings, in its own way, is overused and predictable. Not that I claim any special abilities, secret knowledge, or superiority in the area of crafting finales. Endings are tough. And the wrong ending can seriously tarnish an otherwise exemplary work (I’m looking at you, Battlestar Galactica), so there’s lots of pressure to get it right.

For example, I liked Shutter Island (the movie) all the way to the end. It was compelling up to the point that we are told all events have been a ridiculous and overly complicated stage play done for the benefit of our wacky protagonist. It threw cold water on the whole drama, where we found we were invested in nothing. (If you want to see this type of ending done right, see Inception. It’s odd to think of Christopher Nolan outdoing Scorcese, but there it is.)

Compare the vague dissatisfaction of Shutter Island to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This one is easily the weakest movie in the series, thanks to a screeching Willie and its pervasive (and borderline racist) notions of paternal colonialism, but aside from Raiders, it has the best ending by a mile. For a movie in the tradition of the serial cliffhangers, does it get any better than the hero stranded on an old footbridge, suspended above a pit of crocodiles, with goons closing in on both sides? That ending is the only reason left to watch this movie more than five times, mainly because the awesome ending makes you forget how lame the rest of the movie is.

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Zombies – What Is Hip?

August 7, 2010

I have loaded up the new story “Dreams of Zombies,” which is about the desperate chase for the next big idea. The narrator is this poor schmo who somehow thinks he can make a living writing. Laughable, I know. You can imagine him writing teen vampire stories – but at least here he is trying to get ahead of the next trend with a story about zombies, which in itself might not be a bad story. Entertaining but disposable – so there’s no reason to think it couldn’t sell a million copies or turn into a multimillion-dollar film. Heck, people seem to like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but I couldn’t get past the dull prose and endless exposition. I’ll settle for the movie.

The main character equates good ideas to winning the lottery, and the desperation in his life leads to changing plans and shifting loyalties, with an old writers’ workshop I attended over 10 years ago used as inspiration.

Speaking Chinese

April 17, 2010

The recent tragedy in West Virginia has thrust Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, into the spotlight, which knocked loose a memory of his interview on Marketplace, broadcast on October 29, 2009. His broad declaration, “There is no global warming,” did not stick with me, not as much as what he said next, when asked what would happen if we start to tax coal emissions:

“Teach your children to speak Chinese, because if we’re going to play around with windmills and solar panels, we’ll fall behind.”

That’s some good fear-mongering. Seriously, he could be an adviser on the remake of Red Dawn. He debunks science with a linguistics argument, which is really a subtle reference to a popular global-warming conspiracy that falls under the rubric of larger “one-world government” fears. Because the claimed environmental damages from Blankenship’s industry are so “greatly exaggerated,” there’s no need to make actual arguments against them, right? Unless of course one’s opponents are arguing in Chinese.

I used his dribble as inspiration for the actions of Ardo Reslo in “Year of the Turtle” – and I had intended to mention that interview when I first added the story (since I am all about idea genealogy). But I forgot to write that blog, probably because I didn’t really picture Blankenship as Ardo Reslo, who seems to be smarter than his prototype, more of a Bond-type villain such as Dr. No at the head of another conspiracy theory, this one of the Dr. Strangelove variety.

And for those of you keeping count, that’s my second reference, however indirect, to Terry Southern.

Teach your children to speak Chinese, because if we’re going to play around with windmills and solar panels, we’ll fall behind.

It’s all in a name…

February 25, 2010

I do not remember a time when the words “Skywalker” or “Alderaan” sounded nonsensical and silly. In fact, I don’t know if that time ever existed. They seem like perfectly natural names – a future surname and the name of a planet, celestial in theme but seemingly normal in the natural evolution of language. They were what we would call things, once we ventured into outer space. The name “Chewbacca” was so perfect, he already had his own nickname.

Now, “Starkiller” – that doesn’t sound right. It sounds crude, immature, like the caption, written in pencil, under a comic filled with bulging muscles and bouncing breasts and scrawled in a junior high notebook.

Lucas should get an award for the Star Wars nomenclature (although he damaged his rep with later names like “Dooku”). The names in his universe – at least his first trilogy – are equally iconic and natural. Even with the Ewoks. I remember both times – pre-Ewoks and post-Ewoks – and there was never a time in between when I had to get used to that word. It fit.

The challenge in properly naming things in a sci-fi or “speculative” universe cannot be underestimated. A bad name is like a bad special effect – it takes the reader or viewer right out of the world. Margaret Atwood, for all her diffidence to the label “sci-fi,” should take a lesson from that. For that unabashedly sci-fi epic Star Wars accomplished something she could not. In her book The Year of the Flood, she has a variety of hybrid animals running around, the products of gene splicing, with names like “rakunk” (the combination of a raccoon and a skunk, get it?). One of her characters eats something called a “Joltbar” – seriously. Did she come up with that name in the cab on her way to her publisher’s office?

I am not one to criticize – and I am still reading the book, which is entertaining for the most part (and the Website for the book is a great example of cross-platform marketing). It has some big ideas, expressed well, but as a reader, the names bother me. They strike me as lazy – or the crass attempts by an amateur with paparazzi sensibilities newly introduced to the joys of portmanteau. Maybe she should venture out from the protective shell of “speculative fiction” and see how real sci-fi writers do it.

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The Mundane

June 21, 2009

We have lost our sense of the mundane. That was one of the great things about Philip K. Dick. He didn’t make science fiction about the Space Prince or the World Conqueror or the President of the Universe. He wrote about the janitors, the technicians, the laborers. The ones who get stuff done. They were the ones dealing with the extraordinary. And no one seems to be carrying on the legacy.

Case in point, what was the overarching theme from The Incredibles? “There are only a few special people in the world. And you are not one of them.” Why would the fastest being on the planet need to compete in track and field, except to rub our noses in our own ordinariness? And why would his parents need to see him do that? At the beginning of the film, they didn’t want Dash to compete because they feared exposure, not because it would eliminate any sense of competition to the proceedings (i.e., he would mop the floor with all the kids who were actually trying). On the other hand, Syndrome was a modern-day Prometheus, hoping to bring exceptional qualities (fire) to us ordinary people. And he was the bad guy.

Moving on, I thought Star Trek the franchise needed a mundane makeover. Dispense with the Captain Worship. Especially after the top-down disaster that was Star Trek: Enterprise. Focus on the men and women who really make the ship run – the people cleaning the air ducts, mopping down the transporter rooms, polishing the communications consoles. Really, Captain Worship is just one step above Wesley Worship, and no one wants that.

Well, the new Star Trek film (which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way) still carries our obsession with those at the top. I had my initial doubts about the movie, mainly because Alias was a show about worshipping Jennifer Garner, and I feared J.J. Abrams would carry that over – Kirk would wear a fluorescent-orange wig, cop an attitude to infiltrate the Klingon High Council, and the rest of the crew would have nothing to do but marvel at his mad skills. Star Trek didn’t go that far, but still, I feel we’ve lost our appreciation for the mundane, which is doubly troubling because one, most of us have to live in it and two, we are growing blind to the important stuff that happens in this space. Maybe that’s why everyone nowadays thinks they’re going to be famous.

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Rekindling Bloodlust, Die Hard style

May 16, 2009

I’ve been thinking (too much) lately about the first Die Hard movie. It’s a movie that dabbles in almost every cliche it can find, yet it manages to hold itself together. The end – the very ending, where every stereotype gets its comeuppance – is wrapped up as neat as a Christmas present, and John McClane saves the greatest gift of all for his new best buddy Sgt. Al Powell.

At the start of the movie, Al is unable to draw his gun, the equivalent of castration for an 80s action movie character. (The boring details – Al was on patrol, saw a kid with a toy gun, it was dark, he killed the innocent kid, Al’s scarred for life, blah blah blah.) Then came the raid on the Nakatomi Plaza – with lots of blood, death, and bureaucracy – but Al and John, even though they spend the entire movie apart (sort of a reverse Kirk-Spock a la Wrath of Khan), are able to cut through all that red tape to make a spiritual connection.

It is the strongest bond possible between two guys in a 1980s movie, an audio-only love connection featuring two star-crossed contestants on The Dating Game for supercops. And at the end, they recognize each other across a crowded room, and John gives Al back his mojo, in the form of his ability to shoot things. With Karl rising from the dead (perhaps it was his severe German stoicism that fooled the EMTs?), enormous assault rifle in hand, Al (in the film’s most uplifting moment) is able to whip it out and gun down another human being. Through his relationship with John, Al has reawakened his inner killer, and one can hope that this Aryan terrorist is just the first of many more deserving victims dispatched by the hand of the new and improved Al.

Unfortunately Al had only a minor role in Die Hard 2 and was absent from Die Hard with a Vengeance. By this time (an era we can refer to as the Urkel years), Al was obviously in need of another dose of John McClane. Seems you have to nuture your bloodlust, otherwise it comes with an expiration date.

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Time out of step

April 20, 2009

Do you ever have one of those days when every step you take seems to take you further into a state of increasing unreality? You are one step out of reality – in constant danger of walking into the wrong bathroom. I feel like that all the time.

Some days life is like a Charles Burns story. Or maybe David Cronenberg? Where there’s something not right about the body and its physical manifestation in space and time…

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The Death of Skynet’s old, alcoholic uncle… or What will the aliens do?

March 13, 2009

Some channels quietly switched off their analog signals last month. Maybe one day we will be all digital – but it looks like we will have to wait a little bit longer before the big flip of the switch. A big analog-killer switch. Probably hidden in a cornfield somewhere in Nebraska, along with the nuclear weapons Skynet will one day turn against us as we plunge headlong into the digital age.

So you have to wonder, what will happen with the aliens who are off in a distant galaxy, watching Howdy Doody, My Mother the Car, and the JFK assassination via the TV waves that have washed through space. How will they react when their entertainment fix is cut off? Are we dooming the Earth  to an invasion because our future alien overlords will never get to see the final outcome for Lost (and thus proving the genius of Futurama)? Or perhaps the aliens will arrive to fight the terminators and humanity will squeeze through the cracks of this cataclysmic battle, just as we puny mammals hid under rocks as the dinosaurs faced oblivion many, many, many years ago.

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Watchmen & the future of Highway Virus

March 8, 2009

There is a fourth Highway Virus story. Its composition is ongoing – but I hit a stumbling block. About halfway through it, as I was trying to turn my rambling notes into a coherent narrative, I realized it had many of the same themes as Season Four of Battlestar Galactica – mainly androids struggling with their identity.

My notes predated the time I watched  that season. Maybe there is something to this notion of Morphic resonance, and I plucked my thoughts from the Noosphere. Should I really worry about the connections to my own story if it is part of our collective consciousness? Regardless, the similarities were enough to prompt a retreat, a reorganization, a rethinking, on the fourth Highway Virus story. I want to be at least a little interesting, if not somewhat original, in my writing. The BSG writers have a TV show watched by many people – I don’t – so they get dibs on androids. No matter who was “first,” it would look like I was following behind, picking up thematic scraps in their wake.

Of course the creators and writers of BSG regularly channel Philip K. Dick (but hey, who doesn’t?). They cannot be considered wholly “original” in their work either. But is this debate even useful anymore? Is it possible to be original when there’s always someone who comes before you? Perhaps this whole concern with who owns an idea is a remnant of the cultural revolution in the U.S. – one which ended (hopefully) with the election of Obama.

This topic is appropriate on the weekend that Watchmen opens. The original book, the basis for the movie, is a historic, vastly influential work – and rightly so – but it sure has a lot in common with The Outer Limits episode “The Architects of Fear,” which itself is similar to Theodore Sturgeon’s earlier story “Unite and Conquer” (of course everything goes back to Sturgeon). The Watchmen book even acknowledges this connection near the end, with the episode playing on the TV in the background.

Alan Moore says he had not seen the episode when he conceived the book, a claim I have no reason to dispute. The dude is brilliant – so he gets plenty of slack. Maybe he was floating in the Noosphere too. Fortunately the awareness of the similarity with The Outer Limits did not stop him from writing Watchmen. (Unfortunately it did not stop Zack Snyder from making a movie out of Watchmen.) Of course, as Studio 360 rightly points out, the Watchmen book has been so influential, we have been reading and watching the fruits of that work for years now – just as the influence of Philip K. Dick and Theodore Sturgeon still reverberates long after people are aware of it.

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