Cred

I was listening to the @Nerdist podcast recently when Hardwick and Wheaton began to discuss the concept of “earning” your nerd cred.  My first reaction was to cry foul and just fast-forward through the rest of the discussion, but I started thinking about my own ownership issues with certain icons of nerd culture and I have to agree that there are things you can’t come by easily, things you should have to discover on your own or obtain through terrible difficulty.

Understand that I’m not endorsing the current rapid fracturing of the nerdiverse.  My thoughts on that subject stop at reminding the adherents of various faiths that they are lucky to have a faith to adhere to at all and that in a not very long ago time, everything they loved was mocked and dismissed.  So, basically: Shut up and enjoy your victory.

But I will stake my claim to certain levels of authenticity that latecomers can never truly understand.  Because, what good is a painting if you can’t authenticate that it is, indeed, an original Rembrandt and then lord that fact over everyone who comes to see it?

Last House on the Left, The Town That Feared Sundown, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Cannibal Holocaust.

Latecomers simply can’t comprehend the experience of seeing these movies first run in the theater.  Streaming Cannibal Holocaust on your laptop while sipping chai lattes in bed doesn’t even touch on the rite of passage movies like this one provided for drive-in bound teenagers whose only connection to the world was blurted out in bursts of static from the AM radios embedded in the dashboards of their American made cars.

Every night, driving my Mustang from one pizza joint to another (I went to high school in a small town) I would be subjected to the terrorizing influence of the commercials for the midnight only showings of movies of this ilk.  I’ve written before that I was too scared by the very advertisements meant to entice me to ever see Chainsaw but I did go to the drive-in to see Left and Sundown and to a porn theater in Fairfax to see Cannibal Holocaust with a gay friend who found the violence to be vomit-inducing.

Before the internet, before the wide expanse of the cable landscape, there was a feeling of isolation to life outside the few really big cities and, even then, I’m pretty sure kids who lived in the suburbs of those cities were just as clueless as kids like me growing up in small towns.

If you think I’m doing a “kids these days” bit, you’re missing the point.  Think back to when the first rumors about The Blair Witch started trickling out across the trembling appendages of the Web 1.0 infrastructure.  You were convinced this was real found footage of an actual thing that happened.  These days “found footage” movies are so commonplace they’ve become tiresome, but back then, Blair Witch struck a resounding blow for all those who lived in a degree of isolation that allowed them to believe it might be real.

Well, hold onto your hats kids, because the producers of Cannibal Holocaust were dragged into court because of their “found footage” so they could prove the actors hadn’t been raped and murdered for real.

And even though they weren’t successfully prosecuted, we still believed it was real because instead of a thousand in-the-know, behind-the-scenes whisper-blogs by industry insiders, we had our older cousin who had seen the damn thing and could tell us for sure that the rapes and murders in that movie were real.  Cannibal Holocaust, for us, was a snuff film.

That’s an extreme case, I’ll grant you.  So let’s talk about the common experience of edge dwellers from those days: Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Just as with The Groove Tube and Holy Grail, Rocky Horror existed in the egg sack of its own nascent genre for a good ten years.

I was at a Mickey’s Big Mouth party when I first heard about it.  For the record, Mickey’s Big Mouth was a potent malt liquor concoction that came in short, barrel-shaped bottles with wide mouths that made it easy to get really drunk really fast.  Back in the late 70s and early 80s if you were looking to start trouble on a large scale, you’d have a Mickey’s party.  Forty minutes into the thing, everyone was drunk enough for fights to break out, affairs to be exposed, and sexual preferences to be tearfully confessed.  Also, the whole group could be easily convinced to up and decamp to a midnight showing of Rocky Horror.

That first virginal trip to the midnight show, I had no idea what everyone was talking about.  There were no blogs to inform me and Ain’t It Cool wasn’t even born yet much less palpitating over the latest spoilery information about new releases.  But I went, because that’s what we did.  We couldn’t Google it.  If we wanted to know, we had to go.

The first time I saw MST3K, I was surfing channels looking for something to watch and paused momentarily on a black & white film I had often enjoyed when I was a kid.  I can’t remember which movie it was, just that I was annoyed by the silhouettes down front talking over it.

I almost clicked off, but Joel or one of the bots got off a good one and I started laughing and took my thumb off the detonator.  The only reason I gave them a chance at all was that one joke and something called Short Attention Span Theater, which I vaguely remember as a late 1980s clip show with comedians overdubbing lines in clips from old movies.  SAST was hilarious… as I recall, so I gave MST3K a shot and became hooked.

When Star Wars debuted, there was no promotional campaign that I remember.  I was looking for something to do, decided to check out the movie times in the paper and came across a line drawing of the poster that would become famous in short order.  But to me, it looked like a Japanese science fiction movie.  Something along the lines of The Green Slime.  So I called up a friend of mine and invited him to join me at the Reb Yank (this name made perfect sense to kids in Manassas, Va) movie palace for a good chuckle at the latest badly dubbed, rubber suit monster movie.

I probably don’t have to tell you that when that destroyer passed overhead during the opening shot, I became vaguely aware that we were not, in fact, about to see Green Slime 2: The Enslimining.

This is unarguably the best way to see a movie that will go on to change the course of entertainment.  I saw it again in Grauman’s Chinese Theater later that year when I traveled west.  It was technically a better experience in that the theater was amazing, the sound system was amazing and the screen was enormous but it was not a superior viewing because I knew what I was there to see.

I’m no good at chess.  I suck at math.  A brain cramp in my three dimensional thinking makes it impossible for me to solve a Rubik’s cube.  And, to quote Sam Cooke, I don’t know what a slide rule is for.  I spent all of my time in high school and college chasing skirts instead of going to class or running for student council.

But I was raised on science fiction.  I love horror movies.  And I’m obsessive about the details of the things I crave.

I’m a brown coat wearing, Buffy-ologist of the first order who read the entire Dark Tower series front to back twice.

The fact that I was reading Stephen King when he was still tapping out his masterpieces on a portable typewriter in the HVAC closet of a single-wide trailer makes me a hipster.  Being able to talk at length about his growth as a novelist over the course of his first six novels makes me a nerd.

To quote Hardwick (or Wheaton, I can’t remember who said it): It’s not what we love that makes us nerds.  It’s how we love it.

Now go forth and discover new things to love with nerdly intensity so you can bring them back to the rest of us who hunger for the next Death Race 2000 or Blade Runner or Last Starfighter or Soldier or Moon or Space Station 76.

What are you doing hanging around here?  We’re waiting.

R.I.P.D.

Okay, so what is it with all the hate for this movie?  It has a 13% on Rotten Tomatoes and, of course, it died at the box office, mostly due to a paucity of good reviews.  I watched it today just to kill some time but found myself engrossed and highly entertained.  This is an economical and funny supernatural comedy very much in the ilk of Men In Black that is fast paced and unpretentious.  The writing is good and natural and the funny bits land well.  The acting, especially on Jeff Bridges’ part, is extremely good.  And the story is engaging if not highly original.  This is basically Men In Black IV, but it’s a nice take on the MIB concept.

By comparison, The Room, a movie so inept it seems made for MST3K, has a 33% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Do the critics honestly believe that The Room is three times better than RIPD?  Watching The Room can only be turned into a pleasurable experience by openly mocking it.  RIPD on the other hand, would have been a lot of fun to see at the Alamo.  A beer and a pizza would have gone perfectly with Bridges’ curmudgeonly wild west Sheriff lines.  As a matter of fact, I’m a little bit pissed that I didn’t go see it when it first came out.  That’s what I get for letting other people make my movie viewing decisions for me.

I think the critics were just suffering from action movie fatigue and overhype strain.  I know I was.  Man of Steel and Into Darkness were both disappointing.  Oblivion and Last Stand were equally disappointing and The Hobbit was an unexpected flat-line from my perspective.  I’ve written here before about the sameness that is creeping into the action movie genre.  Never much for originality to begin with, I get the feeling I can tell you what’s going to happen next given only a few minutes taken from any place in the movie.  I didn’t even bother to watch the end of Iron Man 3, I was so certain what was coming.

In the 1970s, action movies were gritty, intense and most likely to star Roy Scheider or Gene Hackman.  Die Hard and Lethal Weapon changed all that in the 1980s when action movies became louder and flashier but with less substance.  I’m not saying that was a bad thing.  Gritty is awesome for a while but then you want to have some fun.  And the 80s, if they were about anything, were about having some fun.

In the 1990s, advanced computer graphics changed the game again, stepping up the flash and the bang and once again reducing the content to little more than a series of snarky quips.  You can chart the drop in quality with the rise of Michael Bay until it reaches its natural nadir by turning one of the most horrific attacks on the United States, Pearl Harbor, into a movie that is little more than a video game.

Then came the superheroes.  And, once again, I am not saying that’s a bad thing.  I love me some comic books.  I love that we finally have the ability to make a comic book movie that is awe inspiring instead of just awful.  It’s just that there are so many of them and they all essentially tell the same story. 

This is my issue, this is a problem I have: when the sameness starts to get to me, I look for something different.  RIPD and The Lone Ranger both looked like they were maybe a step away from the tried & true path.  But they both failed miserably.  And this is where it becomes my problem: whenever I sit down to fashion a story, I look for a way to make it different.  I want an angle that isn’t plumb in the mainstream.  And that’s not always a good idea.  As much as they complain about redundancy, people turn away from the different and lean in for the familiar. 

New stuff is out there for a while, flying under the radar of the general public, gathering critical mass until it breaks through one day and becomes the norm.  All that vampire porn was out there in the Romance sewers for years before True Blood opened the floodgates.  Likewise, Philip Pullman wrote Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass in the U.S.) in 1995 and the first Harry Potter book was published in 1997.  The Young Adult market exploded in the early 2000s and all those authors who had been toiling away in something like the basement of the publishing industry started getting big checks and lots of attention. 

Now everyone wants to write vampire porn and young adult supernatural but the markets are flooded with titles.  Good luck getting noticed there.  No, I think the only thing you can do is write what you like, create the books you want to see on the shelves to paraphrase Gandhi, and hope that your stuff gets swept up in a similar groundswell.  And if not?  Well, at least you have the joy of writing the book.  They can’t take that away from you.

Self Inflicted Wounds

Last Friday, a friend and I were feeling a little masochistic and so decided to watch a double-feature of Oblivion and Last Stand.  I’m not going to say much about Last Stand because it’s just a really unremarkable film.  It’s so full chock full of 80s action film clichés that it should have been billed as a Shane Black tribute film rather than Arnold’s comeback movie, but other than that, it was as uninteresting to watch as a vice-presidential debate.

But Oblivion, on the other hand, should have been called The Idiot’s Guide To How Not To Make An Action Film.   Everything that is wrong with the modern big budget blockbuster summer tent pole movie was lackadaisically stuffed into this stupid waste of pixels.  Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel both suffered from the same sickness that killed Oblivion while The Avengers was only saved from the same fate by Joss Whedon’s wit and sense of humor. 

This is something that someone needs to whisper into the ears of powerful people in Hollywood:

The human brain is a pattern matching machine.

For God’s sake, throw out every copy of Save the Cat and start putting some unexpected beats in your stories.  When even non-film buffs can predict what’s going to happen in the next scene, you’ve created a pattern in the global moviegoer consciousness.  And don’t give me that crap about fulfilling expectations.  Recognizing a pattern is the least rewarding experience a person can have in a movie theater.  People delight in having their expectations jostled.  The Shyamalam twist?  Worked the first time.  After that, people started watching the movie specifically to spot the twist ending.  If Hollywood can’t break free of their Mad-Libs storytelling based on the creative infection that is Save the Cat, then studios are doomed to continue losing big money on big flops.

If you haven’t heard of it: Save the Cat is a book on how to write screenplays that puts page numbers to actual beats.  It has become the lingua franca of moviemaking in Hollywood which goes a long way toward explaining why every damn movie looks the same now.

Spielberg and the other guy, what’s his name, Lucas, came out recently and predicted a box office implosion was coming.  Their assertion was that with too many studios making big budget movies, the audience would get tired of them and stay away in droves.  I don’t think that’s the problem.  Had Into Darkness and Man of Steel and RIPD and Lone Ranger been good movies or, more specifically, if they had differed from one another in story rather than just set design, I would have happily paid to see all of them.

People don’t stay home and stream it on Netflix because it’s cheaper.  This is AMERICA.  We will pay any amount of money to be entertained.  We stay home because we don’t think the movie is worth the risk.  And lately, that has never been more true. 

I’ve seen one good blockbuster this summer, came out of the theater with a smile one time, and that was Pacific Rim.  Even though that movie is a Cat based film like all the others, it fulfilled a dream of mine that formed when I saw the trailer for Mothra at the drive-in as a child: to see giant robots fight giant monsters and not know that it was just guys in rubber suits.  Clearly, not everyone felt that way – although, predictably, they’re digging it pretty hard in Asia.

Here’s the thing about special effects: They can only enhance storytelling, not replace it.  And if someone doesn’t find that cat and put a bullet in its head very soon, we are going to see a tsunami of red ink gush out of Hollywood in the very near future.

And, lastly, what happened to Tom Cruise?  When did he lose his ability to summon drama and just start reciting lines?  In Oblivion, he looked tired to the point of weariness and acted like someone doing an impression of Tom Cruise running lines.  I don’t generally watch his movies so I’m not sure if this has been going on for a long time or if he just had the flu while shooting Oblivion, but he might want to check in with a mental health… oh, that’s right.

Back Into The Cage: Chernobyl Diaries vs. The Awakening

The Awakening and Chernobyl Diaries happened to come in from Netflix on the same day so I watched them back to back in order to form a comparison even though, apart from the fact that they are both horror movies, they don’t have much in common.  One is a classy ghost story in the vein of The Others and the other is a lowbrow zombie picture with radioactive mutants standing in for the zombies.  So why compare them?  Because, much like Total Recall and Dredd, one of these movies succeeds and the other fails on the basis of what is and isn’t in their stories.

On the face of it, one would expect The Chernobyl Diaries to be the favorite here.  It’s got a great hook, tourists trapped in the Chernobyl support village of Pripyat run into a tribe of cannibalistic mutants with hideously deformed faces (either that or they’re wearing old gas masks.  They’re shown so fleetingly that I never got a good look at one).  One of my favorite horror movies ever was the Dawn of the Dead remake and this looked to be in the same vein.  Unfortunately, Diaries has none of the story or character depth of that film and ends up languishing in manufactured drama and overused tropes. 

Anyone can tell a story about a group of people running away from monsters.  The hard part is making viewers or readers care about the people running away from the monsters.  You see how we’re into the Total Recall territory again?  The writers lay in some artificial conflict between two brothers and a pair of newlyweds who are never really properly introduced but it’s just exterior noise. 

Watching this group of really unsympathetic young people get picked off in an increasingly ridiculous series of set pieces, I was reminded of a truly awful book and film that swept the nation a few years ago, The Ruins.  An unreadable book and a truly unwatchable movie, they both fail for the same reason Diaries does: the characters’ relatability ranges from “don’t care” to “wish she would just die already”.  Throw in a completely ridiculous monster in the form of sentient vines (or mutants who have somehow managed to survive intense radiation for several decades) and you’ve got something that is really hard to care about.

Notice I didn’t warn you about spoilers?  That’s because there is absolutely nothing to spoil. If you’ve seen the trailer for this movie, you’ve seen this movie. 

The Awakening, on the other hand, was the one I was looking least forward to seeing.  It looked like another twee British ghost story that spends most of its time going on about “The War” and “Mustard Gas” and wot-wot with a ghost thrown in every now and then for good measure.  Like the Haunting of Downton Abbey – a concept I find so horrible it would just be unimaginable.

That’s not what this is.  Much like the beautiful and powerful and sad and triumphant Pan’s Labyrinth (highly recommended, obviously) The Awakening uses the war as a backdrop for the real story.  But in this case, the war is over and the people who have survived it (and the Spanish Flu epidemic) are living with the ghosts of a million dead from a single generation. 

I’m struggling to find a way to explain how wonderful this movie is without ruining it for you.  Suffice to say that the definition of “haunted” gets a workout and the lead character is on a journey of intense discovery.  And it’s that character and that journey that give the story so much depth.

One thing to add, though, is that I’m in the minority with my fondness for this film.  Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 62% from the critics (Roger Ebert, usually one of the more reliable critics, gave it a one word review: “Whatever”) and 52% from audiences.  I attribute that to its slow pacing and gradual ratcheting up of the horror, two things that I believe add to the film rather than detract from it.  So if you’re in the mood for a quick, cheap scare, definitely go for Chernobyl Diaries.  If you’ve got the time and the patience for a really good ghost story, I recommend The Awakening.

 

Dredd Vs. Total Recall Cage Match

I watched the 2012 Dredd remake last night.  Following on the heels of the just so-so Total Recall remake, I thought this would be an interesting experiment considering the similarity of the source matter; both were remakes of cheesy 1990s Science Fiction extravaganzas staring actors known more for their physiques than their acting chops.

The original Judge Dredd is a stark reminder that once upon a time, Hollywood couldn’t make a comic book movie to save its greasy life.  In the wake of Spiderman, The Dark Knight, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and The Avengers, that’s a little hard to believe, but it’s true.  Once the best Hollywood had to offer in the form of a comic book movie was The Fantastic Four.  I don’t know how they figured it out but the current crop of DC & Marvel movies benefits from more than just better special effects.  They benefit from excellent story structure and storytelling, as well.

The differences between the two remakes are stark.  The look of Total Recall was good but derivative.  The storytelling was rife with action tropes and, as noted before, there was a singular lack of emotional investment in the characters even though there was a romance at the heart of the story.

Everything that Total Recall gets wrong, Dredd gets right.  The oversaturated chromatics give the colors a weird metallic vibe that sets the look apart from anything else I’ve seen in a while.  I didn’t get to see this one in 3D because I was streaming it at home, but I wish I would have.  The super slow motion, overexposed scenes showing the effects of the SloMo drug must have been nearly overwhelming to the senses.  The megablocks, with their vaguely Soviet “good enough for government work” appearance, are also a better visual indicator of overpopulation than crowds of people standing in the rain.

But this blog is really about story, not about visuals, and that’s where Dredd scores well ahead of Total Recall.  Whereas Total Recall wasted a perfectly good chance to humanize their story with the romance between Quaid and Melina, the Dredd writers realized straight off that their protagonist was a nonstarter for emotional involvement.  Judge Dredd as a character is an Eastwood.  He’s not capable of dramatic change or emotional connection.  He’s more a force of nature than a person.  So they rightly focused the emotional side of the story on Dredd’s rookie partner, Cassandra. 

In the end, this is really Cassandra’s story, not Dredd’s.  Not only does she have to go through the mouth and belly of Hell, a megablock run from top to bottom by a vicious gang led by a sociopathically disinterested Ma-Ma (played perfectly by Lena Heady), she has to do it as a psychic given to taking in the thoughts of those around her.  This tower of despair is not filled with the sort of people whose thoughts would be comforting to read.

This is another good point the movie makes about overpopulation: the megablock is filled with equal parts good people and atrocious villains.  When they run out of room, people live in despair cheek to jowl regardless of their proclivities.  With no police force to protect them (Judge Dredd says early on that they can only respond to 6% of 911 calls) people are forced either into a life of crime or one of cowardice without recourse.  This is highlighted when Ma-Ma shuts the building down and traps the two Judges inside so she can kill them.  The ordinary citizens are ordered not to help or risk being killed themselves.  There follow many scenes of terrified citizens closing their doors to the Judges.

The hail of bullets destroying property and innocent bystanders alike used to be Paul Verhoeven’s signature but now pretty much every science fiction movie spends more rounds than were used in all of World War II.  This is probably because the simple act of shooting someone doesn’t have the impact it did when Dirty Harry did it.  We are too inured to gun violence for a single bullet to impress us.  Dredd uses this trope to good effect, however, to show the absolute worthlessness of human life inside the megablocks.  Ma-Ma puts the exclamation point on this statement when she uses three Gatling guns to erase a whole floor, including all its civilians, by shooting right through the concrete walls.

Cassandra’s journey from idealistic rookie to full on Judge is a good one and Dredd’s character acts as a nice signpost indicating where she’s headed should she choose to go there.  And that’s the difference between this plus-good movie and the just good Total Recall.  There’s a journey to go with the chase.

 

Returning to the Well

When Total Recall came out in 1990, my movie buddy and I launched ourselves like guided missiles to the nearest theater not because we thought this might be the mythical good Arnold Schwarzenegger movie but because we knew it would be a delicious ball of cheese – just like every other Schwarzenegger movie but only more so.  Years later I used to watch it with my daughters who also loved it for its awfulness. It’s just so Verhoevian!

When the remake came out last year, I didn’t bother going to see it because a) why? and c) it got a C from Critical Mass and a 31% from Rotten Tomatoes.  Also, Colin Farrell… I just don’t get it.  He was great in Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges but most of the time he’s little more than a talking grimace.

But I found myself with a lot of free time this weekend (read: My Lovely Assistant is out of town) and decided to stream this for a laugh.  Now, it always helps to come into a movie with low expectations but I got a solid good* experience from it.  Actually, I started to stream this on one monitor while playing Borderlands 2 on another monitor which is what I do with boring or tedious movies that I somehow feel the need to watch.  That way I can fill the empty time with run & gun only having to look over at the movie when it seems like something is about to happen.  A few minutes into the Total Recall remake, however, I shut down the stream and moved downstairs to watch it on the big screen.  In other words, I liked what I was seeing.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

It’s a remake so you’re familiar with the story enough to enjoy Kate Beckinsale’s performance as the loving wife.  That was what caught my eye at first.  Knowing that she is going to quickly turn into an ass kicking terminatrix from Hell, makes the scene tasty to behold.

The look of the film is fantastic if slightly derivative of Blade Runner, but whose fault is that Ridley Scott got it so right that no depiction of an overpopulated future can escape without comparison.  Though it is interesting that in Blade Runner, the problem was actually under-population.  The reason J. F. Sebastian has a whole hotel to himself?  Most of the population has moved to the off-world colonies.  What’s left on Earth are the super rich and the physically incapable, the people who would never chance colonization or who are physically not up to the task.

The Synthetics (the robots) have a great look, as well.  Ever since I, Robot (a truly atrocious misappropriation of a foundational science fiction novel) the design of robots in film has been awesome.

The city appears to be built on a massive suspension rig over the bombed out remains of old London (or maybe Old England, it appears to be truly enormous) so every square inch of sky is filled with structure.  The colors are muted because, as science tells us: in the future no one wears bright colors, but also because when you have too many people, humans turn into mud.  Everything has a vaguely Asian look because as Joss Whedon points out: in the future only two super powers will remain, China and the West, and their cultures will fuse into one.

Note: I’m streaming the movie on the other monitor while I’m writing this and I just noticed that the Red Light District scene is quite disturbing and not just because it’s a little derivative of Spielberg’s AI, but because of the Synthetic prostitutes.  It makes you think that the human prostitutes have to do something to compete, hence the three breasted woman.

One place this movie operates well is on the black hat side of things.  Kate Beckinsale plays the Sharon Stone role like a vengeful wife pursuing a cheating husband, the Lorena Bobbit of Terminators.  This adds some texture to what was a pretty shallow role in the original.  It doesn’t hurt that she’s also playing Michael Ironside’s role from that movie.  By blending the two, they removed two fairly flat characters and replaced them with one scary as hell ex-wife.

Also, Bryan Cranston plays evil well because he does it like a corporate executive.  Real evil in the real world doesn’t look like Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  It doesn’t wear an easy to recognize uniform and sit stroking a white Persian cat.  Evil in the real world wears a suit and tie.  It runs companies like Haliburton, BP and Enron.

The thing the remake gets wrong that the original got right, is that the relationship between Quaid and Melina gets pushed to the side in favor of the many set pieces.  Both movies are essentially one long chase scene but in the original, Quaid’s character starts to come into focus when he encounters Melina on Mars.  In the remake, Melina just sort of shows up to save him and they begin running together.

What makes J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot double plus good and this movie just good?  They both have a great look, lots of eye popping action, and an intense and tricky story line, but Star Trek gives you an emotional investment that ratchets up the value of the action.  While the Total Recall remake is fun (the Wonkavator fight scene is particularly good) and pretty to look at, I don’t really care about anyone in it and that always leads to a sort of Meh feeling when the credits roll.

When you walk out of a really good action movie, what you remember is the stunts, the special effects, the chase scenes and the set pieces, but people have a tendency to forget that the reason you found all that stuff so fascinating was because you were emotionally invested in the story.  Forgetting that essential rule is why movies like this get made and the core relationship of the film gets paid little more than lip service.

* Ratings Examples

Double Plus Good: Star Trek Reboot

Plus Good: Looper

Good: Total Recall, Remake

Un-good: Sucker Punch

Plus Un-good: Troll 2

Double Plus Un-Good: The Room

So Bad It’s Good: Total Recall, Original

When The Movie Can’t Be Made From The Book

I read Dune for the first time when I was in seventh grade and I can tell you truthfully that it changed the way I looked at science fiction.  Up to that point I had been steeped in the Asimov and Heinlein approaches to the genre.  Asimov was a big brain bursting with lots of big ideas about science.  Heinlein was not as dry as Asimov but his novels were basically adventure stories for very bright boys.  Dune, on the other hand, created an entire world other than the one I lived in and did it so convincingly that I felt like I had visited the place.

Frank Herbert’s writing style also clicked with me.  Back then most science fiction writers subscribed to the “tell don’t show” method.  The beginnings of their books read like the begats part of the Bible: After the thirty years war between the Thurmons and Carollers, most of humanity fled to six different star systems: Hoar Frost, Nasalum, Groan, Pil… and it goes on like for forty pages until you’re caught up on the imagined events that led to this particular future.

I hate that stuff.  I’m smart enough to fill in the gaps when Herbert explains that thinking machines were outlawed during the Butlerian Jihad.  That’s all I have to know.  As a matter of fact, it’s all the more exciting to fill that part in with my own imagination.  And look at how much George Lucas got out of one throwaway line in Episode IV: “I fought with your father in the clone wars.”  Imagine if that line had been more like:  “Many years ago the emperor created a clone army out of…” and went on like for two pages until the speech finally ended with, “That’s when I met your dad.”

The first thing I thought about when I finished my first of many readings of Dune was: Surely someone somewhere is making a movie out of this.  I had to wait until I was in my twenties for that to actually come about.

The Shining is somewhat the opposite story for me.  I had given up reading by that time in my life – preferring to spend my time skirt chasing and drinking and talking about writing without actually doing any of it.  Science fiction had gone way too far into the fantasy genre for me and what little actual SF there was ended up being stupidly derivative.  I had been a big fan of horror movies all my life but I had never once read a horror novel – probably because I couldn’t imagine the process of reading words on a page actually being anything like terrifying.

Then I saw the trailer for the Shining when I was at the theater for some other movie.  It was brilliant.  It was just a shot of a hallway in the Overlook Hotel with the camera pointed toward the elevator.  Gradually, the elevator door began to open and a wall of blood poured out.  It was so much blood it swamped the corridor like a tidal surge of gore.  For some reason, this was the most terrifying thing I had ever seen.  I later confided in a friend of mine that I was too scared to go see the movie and he responded, “Do what I do.  Read the book first.  The movie isn’t nearly as scary when you know what’s going to happen.”

I had never heard of Stephen King at this point so I had no idea what I was in for, but suffice to say, that simple comment sparked the beginning of some serious fanbois activity on my part.  It also got me reading again, which got me writing again.  And some six months later the movie came out and I went to see it armed with the knowledge that nothing would surprise me in that theater.  Ahem…

Blade Runner is different in a third way.  I had never read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and wasn’t familiar with Phillip K. Dick when the movie came out.  Of course, this instantly became one of my favorite movies ever and I eventually ended up reading the source material only to discover that it had little to do with the movie.  The term Blade Runner actually came from a story by Alan E. Nourse called Bladerunner.  The title makes more sense when you find out Nourse’s novel was about men who smuggled medical instruments.

So… what ties these three movie going experiences together for me?  In all cases the movies were wildly different from the novels they were based on and, eventually, I came to see that as a good thing.    

Take The Shining as an example.  I hated it when I first saw it.  I was that bore who kept going on to everyone who would listen about how it lost all the best parts of the book, how it wasn’t true to the source material, how Jack Nicholson basically stole the movie when he was supposed to be the villain (See Batman a decade later).  Then I saw a made-for-television miniseries that hewed incredibly close to the novel and it was… awful.  Embarrassingly so. 

That was when I went back to the movie and watched it with new eyes.  Only then, after seeing the thing rendered letter perfect, could I see what Kubrick had done.  He took the essence of the novel, the really important parts, the bits that were photographable, and made a movie out of them.  And in the end I realized that he was far more true to the story than the miniseries that had slavishly recapitulated every scene from the book.

I had the same experience with Dune.  I eagerly settled down into my seat at the San Angelo Cinema Two along with a dozen buddies from the barracks and waited for greatness to wash over me.  What I got was the feeling that someone had slipped acid into my soda.  Those of us who were ardent fans of the book left the theater shaking our heads in confusion and disgust.  We didn’t remember anything about Sting in a bikini in the book.  And where were the complexities and political intrigue that had given the novel its rich inner motivations? 

But Dune quickly became one of my favorite late night guilty pleasures.  I literally could not pass it up when channel surfing.  If I landed even for a second on a scene from the movie I was in for the long haul no matter how late it was or how early I had to get up in the morning.

Initially, I was able to make the transition from hater because I had divorced the movie from the book and now viewed them as two separate stories.  From that vantage point the movie is a deliriously sloppy delight of avant-garde art direction and LSD inspired set design that perfectly captures the grandeur and unhinged insanity of Herbert’s story. 

I think I finally came to the realization that Lynch had done with Dune what Kubrick did with The Shining when I saw The Phantom Menace and was made to understand exactly how entertaining political intrigue at the federal level can be.  Lynch’s Dune is an opera.  The Phantom Menace is three hours of C-SPAN with the exciting parts cut out.

 

Blade Runner is, once again, a completely different animal from the other two movie adaptations on this list.  If you’ve read the original source material, you know that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a not very well written and not particularly insightful take on Dick’s usual topics of identity and manipulation.  But I’ve always felt that the reason Dick’s stories make such great movies is that he was a writer of ideas.  His stuff reads like first drafts that capture the idea he wants to get across but he never seemed to go back and do the story construction and character development that would have elevated them from ideas to stories. 

Bottom line: Sometimes you can’t make the movie of the book.  It’s just not possible.  Maybe the source material is too big, too complex, too narrated or just not very good.  What do you do when that happens?  You make a movie about the essence of the story.  Sometimes that works out great, as it did with these three films, and sometimes you get Ghost Story.

Note:  I left a bunch of movies, such as The Big Sleep and A Clockwork Orange, off this list to keep the length of the post manageable.  Chime in with your own suggestions.