Thursday, September 29, 2011

Deadline Looming!

I'm on a tight deadline, but with a little good fortune shall return to blogging sometime tomorrow.  Wish me luck!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

TV REVIEW: Terra Nova: "Genesis" (1 & 2) (2011)

If nothing else, the new Fox TV series Terra Nova from Brannon Braga and Steven Spielberg is a stark reminder that there are really two tiers of television entertainment or programming available these days.

On the first tier, you get nuanced, droll, dramatic, and highly-intellectual fare such as Dexter, The Walking Dead or True Blood

And on the other tier, you end up with pandering, appeals-to-the-masses hokum such as Terra Nova.   

This new sci-fi series, a superficial, rah-rah paean to the glories of  the American nuclear family -- even in the Cretaceous Period -- is generic, as bland as they come, and slathered with relatively weak CGI special effects.  As many critics have observed, the dinosaurs look pretty terrible. But then so do the CGI landscapes and cities. 

Still, the effects aren't the biggest problem.  The crisis for Terra Nova is that it is pitched so damn low in terms of intelligence, and even internal consistency.

The premise of Terra Nova, as you likely know by now, is that by 2149 AD, man has all but destroyed Mother Earth.  The atmosphere is polluted and virtually unbreathable.  American citizens must wear "re-breathers" on a daily basis just to survive.

However, mankind of the 22nd century discovers he may get a second chance.  A fracture in time-space has been detected, and so man of the future has begun to send "pilgrimages" back in time some 85 million start over. 

The discovery of this time fracture has also revealed that this gateway leads not to our own past; but to the past of an alternate reality.   Therefore, the people who go back in time are free to interfere in the affairs of the world without worrying about deleting their own histories from existence. 

Of course, they may be interfering with alternate selves or other, innocent human beings, but no one bothers to bring up that point.  If evolution unfolds as it does in our reality, the pilgrimages to Terra Nova are certainly usurping it.

The Shannon family, led by Jim (Jason O'Mara) and Elizabeth (Shelly Conn) are among those who travel back in time to Terra Nova for a "new dawn" for mankind.  Getting there isn't easy, however.  The parents have broken Federal laws concerning "population control" and given birth to a third child.  When this child, Zoe, is discovered, Jim -- a cop -- is incarcerated.  Two years later he breaks out of a maximum security prison to go back in time with his family and escape such restrictions.

Fortunately, the Shannons are warmly received by Commander Taylor (Stephen Lang) at Terra Nova, and quickly become top advisers to this charismatic military leader.  Their teenage son, Josh (Landon Liboiron), however, proves quite rebellious and begins exploring outside the Terra Nova compound with other young adults.  He does so despite the fact that dinosaurs called "slashers" roam freely about and like to feed on humans.

Meanwhile, Jim learns that there is unrest in Terra Nova, particularly from a group called "Sixers" (from the Sixth Pilgrimage).  The Sixers often steal supplies from Taylor's community, and have staked out a nearby quarry where valuable minerals are located.

In the first two-part episode, "Genesis," the viewer is introduced to the Shannons, their world of 2149 AD, and the community of Terra Nova in the distant past.  But for all the intriguing ideas evident in the premise, the show's big observations so far are all pure middle Americana sitcom: that teens will remain rebellious, even with dinosaurs about, and once-a-cop, always a cop.  The drama doesn't go much deeper than that, at least not yet.  And science fiction should be deep; it should be about examining the human equation from as many angles as possible.

And actually, Terra Nova plays on a dumber level than my critique above indicates. The series presents us with two basic facts that seem to have trouble co-existing.  The first is that overpopulation is destroying our planet, and that rigorous laws have been established in an attempt to slow down overpopulation -- an unsustainable lifestyle -- as much as possible. Such laws limit a family membership to four. 

And the second fact is that the Shannons, our protagonists and role models, have broken this law intentionally, and had a third child.  Why, we are not informed.

Amazingly, the writers of Terra Nova are never smart enough to draw a straight line here connecting these facts.  In the past, Taylor speaks of a new dawn for mankind, and how the old world was destroyed.  He notes, particularly, that man "blew it," that "he destroyed our home."  He did so, insists Taylor, through "greed and ignorance."  Now, 85 million years in the past, he has a chance to start again.

But the problem is this: the Shannon family is held up as heroes by the series, yet they are among those who willfully helped to destroy the planet by intentionally disobeying the laws and edicts of their culture.  Their world is in shambles...and they made it worse by breaking the laws regarding childbirth and personal responsibility. 

And we're supposed to like and respect them. 

At this point, I'm not sure why they, in particular, deserve a second chance.  This show is so dumb that it doesn't even make the connection between the necessity of the population control law to PRESERVE LIFE ON EARTH and the fact that the Shannons wantonly broke it...but now get a second chance in the Garden of Eden anyway.

Instead, the "Population Control" officers of the government are portrayed here as black-booted thugs who interfere in the private affairs of families.  These gestapo-styled soldiers enter a private home, turn it upside down, and find a hidden child.  At first, I believed that this scenario might represent some kind of metaphor for illegal immigration, with the Shannons desperate to find a way to get to their new home, even if illegally, with the family intact. 

But then I realized instead that the show is simply pandering to the selfish, myopic Tea Party mentality dominating our national discourse right now.  In other words, government is made to look evil (and anti-family, and anti-life) for interfering with the affairs of private citizens.

And yet, as is abundantly plain, this is an immensely stupid argument.  If you can't breathe the air, if the world is dying, the government of man must do something to save us, right?  Something like imposing population controls.  Given the dire environmental situation portrayed in Terra Nova, a limit of two children per family hardly seems unreasonable. Unlike Z.P.G (1972), for instance, there isn't a complete moratorium on child bearing here.  This law is not even as draconian as a "one-child" policy. No, instead, the government in this series is just saying limit the family to two children

But hey, that's taking away our destroy the planet.  I can hear the cries of "don't tread on me" already.  And in this case, the people shouting that phrase will literally choke on it, as the air becomes unbreathable for everyone.  What Terra Nova seems to indicate is that it is okay for the individual to defy the rules of the government -- rules made for the common good -- because they overstep some sense of personal liberty.  This is Ayn Randianism gone nuts.  Nobody seems to care about the common good anymore.

And again, this idea even seems embedded in the series premise.  Terra Nova is a community not just in an alternate world, but an alternate past.  By going there and interfering with history, the colonists are, essentially, dooming another human race (assuming similar evolution).  How would we feel if aliens from a world that they ruined traveled to our past and colonized it, taking away not just our liberty, but our very existence?    The more you think about it, Terra Nova is a program about very selfish people.  And again, we have to ask, do they really deserve the second chance, a second world to ruin?

Frankly, I don't know if this conceit was intentional, or just a result of shoddy thinking, but so far Terra Nova is rife with these gaps in logic. 

For instance, there have been ten pilgrimages back to the community of Terra Nova, and yet there is no sign or indication of a civilian government there.  Instead, a military man, Commander Taylor, runs the entire show, without oversight.  Now, with dinosaurs hopping around, I absolutely understand the need for a strong security force and a well-armed militia, but why doesn't one exist side-by-side with a citizen council?  Do the people of Terra Nova realize they have traveled back in time to participate in...a military dictatorship?  

That's their answer for escaping the restrictions of an overreaching government in 2149 AD...authoritarian military rule?  There's your freedom for you.

With all the happy talk of a new beginning and a new dawn for humanity, you'd expect that democracy might be one quality of America that would be exported to the Cretaceous Period, but apparently this is not the case.
Besides concerns such as these, the makers of this sci-fi series seem to work overtime to satisfy all audience demographics.  That's where more of  the pandering comes in.

In the span of a two-hour season premiere, the writers set up hunky/sexy prospective romantic partners for both the Shannon teenagers, for instance, thus assuring that teenagers will tune in.  So in the first show, you get teens in love, bromides about families sticking together in tough times, a vicious dinosaur attack, and enough bad green-screening to last you a lifetime.

In terms of genre history, Terra Nova owes a big debt to Lost in Space, which concerned an American family contending with another dangerous frontier, outer space.  Also, Lang's character and character history seems somewhat reminiscent of the actor's role in Avatar (2009).  In terms of visuals, the series references both Stargate and The Time Tunnel with its temporal hardware.

Terra Nova may yet improve, and I hope it does.  I'd like nothing more than to have a weekly engagement with intelligent science fiction television.   The two-hour premiere sets up some interesting mysteries regarding the motivations of the Sixers, and Taylor's long-missing son, so I hope I have some cause for optimism. 

I'm pretty disappointed with the opening chapter of this new drama,  but I will keep watching, and keep hoping that Terra Nova transcends its TV tier...and begins to be a science fiction series worthy of the genre.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

From the Archive: Somewhere in Time (1980)

Very often, it appears that science fiction films are designed and mounted with a hard technological edge. It's easy to detect why this is so, and I imply no criticism of the fact.

Understandably, the specific, visual nature of the cinema offers the perfect opportunity to showcase state-of-the-art special effects, fancy modern vehicles, cool costumes and colorful flourishes. And the movies - a medium primarily of action and movement (hence the descriptor "moving pictures") -- also lend themselves organically to physical conflict: car chases, fisticuffs, sword-fights and the like.

Yet the upshot of this fact is that it's much easier to mount and sell a science fiction film about laser swords, superheroes, and transforming robot armies than one authentically about the mysteries of the human heart. A reliance on instrumentation (the camera) results, to a large degree, in a genre medium about instrumentation (batmobiles, HAL, atom bombs, etc.)

By explicit contrast, stories of the heart are always more difficult to dramatize...and downright chancy. In or out of the genre. The looming danger in crafting a truly emotional and romantic genre film is that by necessity it appeals to the emotions, not the intellect. And, well, some hearts are irrevocably...cold. Some hearts are guarded, impenetrable. And some are so stony and unresponsive that there's absolutely nothing that can be done to open them up.

To the cynical or mocking ear, sweet nothings and other deeply-held admissions of romantic affection shared between gazing and swooning lovers can sound alarmingly purple in perfectly-tuned stereo. These days, we love to say that such moments of romantic affection are "campy" or "corny" if they make a direct appeal to the heart. Witness the huge backlash against James Cameron's Titanic (1997). Recall also the accusing, snickering, pointed-fingers over Anakin's "sand" speech to Amidala in Attack of the Clones (2002).

These days, it's easier to blow up romantic leads (like Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight) than to write heartfelt romantic dialogue for them.

Why is this so? A couple reasons, I suspect. But when it comes down to it, it may simply be this: love is a deeply personal thing. It's an emotion shared between two; one not easily transmitted between the masses via a technological medium. Film, after all, is homogenized, collaborative...technical. As an audience -- as a mob even -- we are primed to laugh, shriek and gasp. But not necessarily, to open ourselves up; to peel away our defenses.

Yet by the same token, who can truly deny that the best movies in history -- like real love itself -- transcend such barriers of the medium and thereby seem authentically...magical. How intellectual, for instance, is "chemistry" between two actors? How is that alchemical relationship quantified in scientific terms? Film records it; film registers it; film captures it. But people (the actors involved) make it happen. Sometimes they do so between the lines of dialogue.

I raise this meditation on love and film in connection with Somewhere in Time (1980), the romantic film based on Richard Matheson's 1975 novel Bid Time Return.

The premise is simply that a lonely, empty man, a writer named Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) falls in love with a photograph of a radiant, long-dead stage actress, Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour). He becomes so consumed with her beautiful image, in fact, that he actually hypnotizes himself into time traveling from 1980 to court her.

In other words, this film is one romantic notion constructed upon another romantic notion, constructed upon a further one. For some viewers in today's generally caustic pop culture, perhaps this is simply too much to accept.

Some viewers. But not me.

Gazing across the vast swath of time travel films, the queue is replete with efforts that boast epic, earth-shattering concerns. What if the time traveler changes our collective past? What if human history is altered? What if one action in the past changes everything that we have come to know? Indeed, this is the beauty, opportunity and terrain of time travel films as a format.

Yet, Somewhere in Time differentiates itself from the temporal pack by brushing aside such cosmic concerns. Here we are simply drawn into another life; another world....because of love. There are no explicit conversations about paradoxes, about time machines, or about any of the time travel boilerplate techno-jargon we have come to expect from the sub-genre. Rather, this film asks us to ponder a love so powerful, so out of the ordinary, that it reaches beyond the veil of our reality. This element imbues Somewhere in Time with some appreciable sense of the spiritual; of the longing for the impossible and the mystical in our every day lives.

A lush, almost impossibly affecting score from John Barry serves as our constant companion on this voyage to the distant, naive world of 1912. The setting -- a picturesque Grand Hotel -- is romantic in and of itself.  And the time period -- the last age of naivete and simplicity before the first "technological" war (World War I) -- also evokes feelings of innocence, simplicity and lyricism. It is a world without e-mail or television; without cell phones or other modern distractions. Against this backdrop, a man of the present and a woman of the past fall in love before our very eyes. And this is where you either accept the story the film wants to share with you, or you step back, harden your heart, and denounce it as cheesy and corny.

And, of course, some romance literature and film is legitimately cheesy.

But that's because it's done poorly. I don't believe that's the case with Somewhere in Time. Specifically, director Jeannot Szwarc has crafted his film with a subtle sense of visual classicism. Many of his compositions, particularly one involving the lovers, a lighthouse, the ocean and a beached rowboat, evoke real paintings from the bygone era.

For another thing, Szwarc marshals his camera in a stately, anticipatory way. Anyone who has been separated from a lover for some length of time will know what I suggest by this. Just watch the gorgeous scene and camera work involving Collier's first "real" view of Elise in 1912. We initially catch a glimpse of her in long shot, in the reflection of a window-pane, and then, as Collier pivots, we cut to this beautiful and stately moving shot -- over the landscape -- as an eclipsed female figure comes slowly into view, the sea visible behind her. The build-up is deliberate and glorious, and if you've known love, you get it and your heart beats faster. If're reading the wrong review right now.

After this "reunion," we're into the meat of a star-crossed love story. It's well-written, but what we're ultimately left with is a rousing soundtrack augmenting the excellent chemistry between the two appealing leads. The late Christopher Reeve is at his goofy, innocent best. He was always wonderful and charming playing the fish-out-of-water, the man slightly out-of-step with his time and his world...and such is true here.

And Seymour, an ethereal, distant beauty, melts slowly and methodically, until she delivers a rousing, theatrical monologue about love that remains a high point for the actress in both this film and in her distinguished career. Again, if you think the words are cheesy, just consider the venue (the stage) on which this soliloquy is presented. Once more, Szwarc has done something more than modestly clever in his presentation.  He has provided a 1980s film audience with an old-fashioned pronouncement of love, but through the appropriate artifice of the 1912 stage. Seen in that light, everything is as it should be. Slightly larger than life.

I have concentrated in this review mostly on the romantic aspects of Somewhere in Time, and yet, in a sense that focus also does the film a disservice. Dig deeply into this movie, and you will find that it is teeming with ambiguities. For instance, ask yourself: where does the gold watch come from, originally? As the film opens in 1972, an elderly Elise McKenna gives a watch to young Richard Collier. She says the words "come back to me." After Collier has obliged, and traveled back to 1912, he gives the gold watch to she can one day again give it to him as a gift. It's a mind-bender, because the watch seems to originate...nowhere.

Ask yourself too, what is the real role of Christopher Plummer's character, Robinson? He claims to know who Collier really is; and argues that Collier will "destroy" McKenna. In a sense, that's exactly what happens. When Collier is yanked back into the present, leaving McKenna behind...her career is ruined; she's depressed and lost.

So the question becomes: is Robinson a fellow time traveler (perhaps another man who has fallen in love with that photo of Elise?) or is he merely a worried theater agent, fretting about his meal ticket? To its credit, Somewhere in Time makes absolutely no comment on this debate. Rather, it lets you sift through the clues and arrive at your own conclusion.

I remember when Somewhere in Time was first released, quite a few critics seemed to have a big problem with the idea that Collier had hypnotized himself into traveling back through time. But today, after having read so much about quantum physics, I wonder why it is that we so readily accept the idea that a machine could achieve time travel. But our brains can't? I mean, a time machine is always invented by the human brain, isn't it? Our mental abilities are the root creative force in both instances. But I very much like the idea here that it is the brain - the dedicated, passionate, individual human brain - that makes the seemingly-impossible leap without benefit of hardware or instrumentation.

Because if you've ever been in love, you do feel like you can move mountains with your bare hands. So why not time travel for love too?

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: Amazing Colossal Giants and Incredible Shrunken Men

Identified by Hugh: The Twilight Zone: "The Invaders."

Identified by Will: The Twilight Zone: "The Little People."

Identified by Dave: Lost in Space: "There Were Giants in the Earth."

Identified by Dave: Land of the Giants (1968).

Identified by Dave: Fantastic Voyage (1968).

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: "Requiem for Methuselah."

Identified by Will: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "The Infinite Vulcan."

Identified by Will: Dr. Shrinker (1977).

Identified by Hugh: Dr. Who: "The Invisible Enemy."

Identified by Michael Falkner: Star Trek: Voyager: "Death Wish."

Identified by Will: Star Trek Deep Space Nine: "One Little Ship."

Identified by Hugh: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Fear Itself."