Friday, December 09, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"There's plenty of money out there. They print more every day. But this ticket, there's only five of them in the whole world, and that's all there's ever going to be. Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money. Are you a dummy?"

- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
(to be reviewed here tomorrow) 

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Collectible of the Week: Star Trek Game (Hasbro; 1974)

Some five years after the original TV series ended and five years before The Motion Picture (1979) premiered, Hasbro released this memorable and unique Star Trek board game (for ages 4 - 10). 

Decorated with art reminiscent of both the Gold Key comic book series and the CBS animated series of the 1970s, this Star Trek "action and adventure in outer space" game comes with a large fold-out  playing board, four colored pieces (representing the Enterprise crew), and a "double" spinner that permits your starship to travel under either impulse or warp drives.  The spinner is probably the coolest aspect of the game.

On the large, colorful board, there are four separate adventures to experience, one for Kirk, one for Spock one for "Bones" and one for Lt. Uhura.  And the individual adventures are rather strange, too.  In one adventure, Mr. Sulu is called Mr. "Sula" and the word "asteroids" is repeatedly spelled as "asternoids." 

I don't know about you, but I'd hate to have a bad case of asternoids...

Anyway, in one adventure, you land on a spot where "the crew becomes sleepy" (!) and the player must go back three spaces.  Turns out the sleepiness is being caused not by MSG, but by "moonbeams."

Another adventure on the board involves an oddball mystery: "who has been fishing on Earth?"   Turns out its aliens; apparently without a fishing license...

The whole thing, story-wise, is incredibly odd and not very Star Trekkian in detail.  Obviously, it's designed for the very young, but still, kids are smart; they know when details are wrong.

On the plus side, the original series-styled art work remains very intriguing and if nothing else, the game is abundantly colorful.  I'd say the Hasbro Star Trek game is worth having just for the warp and impulse spinner.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Super 8 (2011)

"You can't go home again" wrote Thomas Wolfe. 

And if nothing else, J.J. Abrams' expensively-mounted Steven Spielberg pastiche, Super 8 (2011) proves his point.  

This is a science fiction film I wanted to love, and more than that, wanted to love deeply.  My ardent desire to love Super 8 stems from my admiration for Spielberg the filmmaker and also from my feelings of affection for the long-lost days of my own childhood; the days of model-building, amateur movie-making, and middle school friends.

But as much as Super 8 implores modern audiences to "relive the memories" in the spirit of a Kodak advertisement featured in the film, it ultimately lacks the humanity of Spielberg's impressive cinematic oeuvre.  Despite his rampant sentimentalism, Spielberg's films are almost universally constructed  upon solid stories, on tales that hang together and, more than that, touch the heart.   

By contrast,  Super 8 feels more like a collection of ingredients that, finally, don't gel into something coherent or meaningful.  The movie simply doesn't stay with you after you've screened it because, finally, it has nothing new or interesting to say.  If nostalgia is the most useless of emotions then Super 8 -- a non-Spielberg Spielberg movie -- is the most useless of movies.

In terms of specifics, Super 8 dramatizes two interconnected tales. One is about a group of friends who throw everything (including the kitchen sink...) into the making of their own backyard horror film.  The other, far less interesting story concerns an alien who escapes from military custody and nearly destroys the friends' town. 

In the latter story, Super 8's creature or "monster" conveniently represents whatever the screenplay happens to need at any given moment -- either horror or wonder, by the roll of the dice --  and never becomes a consistent-seeming presence, or  a character as memorable or colorful as the beasties depicted in Jaws (1975), E.T. (1982), Close Encounters (1978) or Jurassic Park (1993).

I harbor no enmity for J.J. Abrams as a filmmaker -- not even for his widely ridiculed overuse of "lens flare -- but Super 8 by-and-large confirms my suspicion about him as a popular filmmaker.  He understands form and style quite well, but doesn't quite "get" substance.  

In other words,  the director knows very precisely how to make a product that on a superficial level resembles something else you already know and like: a Star Trek movie that feels like Star Trek, for example. But in some cases, Abrams doesn't quite capture the heart of the thing he so colorfully simulates.  Consequently, something deep and human is sacrificed in his vision.  Occasionally you don't notice this facet of Abrams' work because the execution of his mimicry is so dynamic and accomplished.You get distracted by the bells and whistles.

Super 8 has a lot of bells and whistles. But what it needed was heart.

"Bad things happen... but you can still live."

Super 8 tells the story of young Joe Lamb (Joe Courtney), a boy who lives in small town Ohio and is fourteen years old in the summer of 1979.

As the movie commences (with a great first shot), Joe's mother has died in an industrial accident, and a mourning Joe lives with his in-denial father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), the local police deputy. 

While working on an amateur zombie movie with his friends, Joe -- the project's make-up artist -- begins to fall for lovely Alice (Elle Fanning), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and daughter to the man who indirectly caused his mother's death.

While shooting their Super-8 movie at a local train station, Alice, Joe and their friends witness a horrifying train wreck.  Something monstrous escapes from the wreckage, and begins to wreak havoc upon the small town...

"I know that's your camera, sir, but technically, that's my film."

Super 8 is constructed primarily upon two pillars: Spielberg nostalgia and late 70s/early 80s nostalgia.  Both facets of the film give the enterprise a considerable lift, even if they can't, in the final analysis, cloak the superficiality of the film's emotional canvas. 

In particular, the production design milieu of Super 8 is truly splendid, a careful evocation of the Carter/Reagan era that brings back many fond memories for me. 

I was a kid of about ten-years old at this time in our nation's history, and so for me the film's setting sparked some powerful memories.  The model kits, the movie posters, and the toys in young Joe Lamb's bedroom are items that I remember well and that speak to my personal sense of nostalgia.  I also enjoyed seeing characters return home to modest split level ranches rather than outrageously designed, glitzy McMansions.  America has changed a lot in three decades.

Refreshingly, Abrams' film boasts a sense of humor about this era too. One droll moment involving the Sony Walkman captures almost perfectly the differences between 1979 and 2011. I appreciated all these period touches and references, and the movie made me feel wistful for the freedom of youth.  Super 8 depicts a world without e-mail, cell phones, and video game platforms (save for Atari), in which, as a kid, you really and truly felt free to explore your own imagination.  No officially arranged "play dates" were necessary.  The afternoons, following school, seemed to last forever, and you didn't have to worry about updating your Facebook profile. 

We didn't realize it at the time, but today this bygone age seems like one of pure innocence.

Super 8 also captures well that delicate period of adolescence when boys start to outgrow their toys but are too young, really, to understand girls or the reasons why girls make them feel a certain way.  For many adolescents, the focus on movies-- on movie making explicitly -- proves a perfect bridge between childhood and adulthood.   With movies, you can still "play" as you would with toys and -- if you're lucky -- get girls in on the act too.  My later teen years were spent in this endeavor, as I made home movies with my friends; home movies with titles like The Great Can Opener Massacre and Rock'n'Roll Vampires from Hell.

So I really do get what Super 8 aims to recreate.  I love the period touches, and I admire the excavation of a special time in "this boy's life."

The film's second creative pillar, Spielberg's aesthetic, is also impressively rendered.  In Super 8, we see all the ingredients that made Spielberg's work (especially circa 1975 - 1985) so powerful to a generation of film lovers. 

For instance, there are scenes in Super 8 of a disconcerting military presence in suburban America, as also depicted in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.  There are kids on bikes, pedaling from adventure to adventure as seen in E.T. and the Spielberg produced Poltergeist (1982).  There's also the Spielberg convention I call "This boy's bedroom," in which items decorating the bedroom reveal much about a boy's interest in magic, movies, monsters and pop-culture.  We saw "this boy's bedroom" featured in everything from Close Encounters to E.T., to Spielberg productions like Poltergeist and Gremlins.  Spielberg-inspired efforts such as The Monster Squad (1986) and Invaders from Mars (1986) featured the convention too.  

Super 8 also gains a lot of mileage from "broken" families, a Spielberg tradition in The Sugarland Express (1971) E.T. and even Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).  Abrams also knowingly evokes Spielberg-ian film compositions, namely the commonly-seen "Jurassic Park"-styled shot in which characters gaze upward, mouths agape, at something wondrous, off-camera.

Most importantly, however, Super 8 involves the idea of something alien or foreign invading normal suburban America, whether that something be a shark, an alien, ghosts, Nazis, or monsters.  It's not a coincidence that Super 8 takes place in 1979, the year of the Three Mile Island disaster.   Something was roiling under "normal" life in America of this span...and it seemed mysterious and possibly frightening.

I enjoyed all of Abrams' Spielberg-ian homages here, I must admit.  And yet I kept feeling, as I wrote above, that in Super 8 I was screening the work of a man who understood surface detail, but not deeper meaning.  And that, furthermore, the story (by Abrams) had been crafted exclusively to make room for all the homage, without sufficient regard for internal logic and consistency.

Considered rationally, the narrative makes precious little sense.  For instance, the audience is asked to believe that a tormented alien who can read humans minds has never, before interfacing with Joe, encountered an individual who has experienced and understood loss and personal pain.  You see, contact with the boy and the boy's advice that "bad things happen, but you can keep living" prove the very impetus that redirects the angry alien towards escape rather than vengeance.  The alien puts down his pastime of eating human body parts, and decides to home.

This resolution feels like a creative cop-out, especially since the creature already boasts access to Elle Fanning's Alice, and certainly she -- having lost a mother too -- understands the nature of pain.  Why is it that after reading so many human minds, the monster only achieves closure through rapport with Joe?  This whole idea -- upon which the plot resolution hinges -- is undeveloped at best and contrived at worst.

Another poorly-constructed moment in the film's third act finds Joe's father -- without explanation or apparent precipitating cause -- deciding to forgive the man who, through negligence, is responsible for his wife's death.  This change of heart is supposed to be a heartwarming moment, but there's no lead-up to it, and no character growth that reaches a particular crescendo.  Spielberg movies may be relentlessly sentimental, but this quality of his work is usually earned.  The character "growth" in Super 8 feels capricious and mechanical by comparison.

Super 8's emotional climax seems off in some significant way too.  Joseph must choose to let go of the locket that belonged to his dead mother.  This piece of jewelry is all that he's got left of her now, but the movie's point -- as seen in the monster's epiphany -- is "letting go."  The monster lets go of his pain at Joe's urging, and ascends to the stars.   In this same spirit, Joe releases his mother's locket and lets go of his pain and loss too. 

Again, I get the idea: don't hold onto the past.  Live in the present.  And yet this message is utterly incongruous and somewhat insincere in a movie that lingers -- nay wallows -- in the notion of  the past.  The whole movie lives in so-called "better" days.  It  holds on tightly to the fairy tale of a "simpler past," so tell me again why Joe should willingly let go of the only tangible memory of his lost mother?  

This valedictory moment, like so many others in the films, does not ring true on an emotional level.  When he's twenty, Joe will really wish he held onto that locket...

The few original touches that Abrams brings to Super 8 also tend, in some way, to work against the film's spirit.  The big special effects set piece of the film is a spectacular train crash.  This crash doesn't feel Spielbergian in any sense of the word.  Spielberg's style is best described as grounded reality plus a touch of magic.  A simple American town encounters a voracious great white shark that is almost supernatural, for example.  A boy meets an alien who is lost, and needs a friend...just like him, for another.  Spielberg's films are grounded in our reality, and there's usually only one magical quality involved, so that believability is maintained. 

Here, by contrast, the train crash brazenly defies the laws of physics and is so over-the-top catastrophic you can't believe for a moment that anyone would survive it, let alone children bystanders nearby, at the scene.  Train cars blow apart, launch through the air like missiles, explode into towers of flame...and the movie loses every bit of grounded reality it has painstakingly crafted up until that point.  A train crash of this cartoon nature belongs in another movie, but not in a Spielberg homage.

The other "new" touch in Super 8 involves the depiction of the alien.  He has been tortured by America for years, and is angry about his treatment.  This disposition seems to reflect the post-Bush II, War on Terror mindset, not Ronald Reagan's more noble mindset of the 1980s. In May of 1988, President Reagan declared his desire to "bring an end to the abhorrent practice of torture" worldwide by supporting the Convention Against Torture and Inhuman Treatment or Punishment, for instance.   The point of this rumination is that back in the "simpler" 1980s, we believed we were the good guys, and Spielberg films reflected this steadfast belief.  Nobody in the American military tortured the aliens in Close Encounters.  We feared E.T. would be captured and studied in the 1982 film, but I don't know that we feared our government would actively and sadistically torture the guy.   I mean...we didn't think he was going to be water boarded.  The torture angle  is a new touch that reflects our times, but alas also seems out of synch with the Spielberg-ian painting kit in Super 8.

I would hate to give the impression that I think Super 8 is a terrible or worthless film.  It isn't.  The parts of the film I enjoyed and admired the most involved the children working hard to make their zombie movie.  Over the end credits, their final cut gets played, and it is a funny, affectionate, imaginative delight.  All the performances in the film, particularly by the children, are very strong as well.

But the movie's story doesn't really make much sense, no emotional connection is ever forged with the badly-designed, ugly monster, and the score by Michael Giacchino falls well short of the standard set by John Williams for Spielberg.  Most damningly, the film resolutely lacks a sense of wonder.  I remember very well the days of Spielberg's magic; the days when he made one seemingly perfect blockbuster movie after another.  He went from strength to strength, from Jaws to Close Encounters to Raiders of the Lost Ark (let's forget 1941 for the moment...) to E.T., and made movie fans for life out of children of my generation.   The man can do wonder, and do it well.

Super 8 feels more like second tier, quasi-Spielberg fare, like Lady in White (1988) or The Monster Squad.  It knows what it wants to be and what it should be, but it just doesn't quite have the chops -- or the emotional honesty -- to play on the master's level.  I held high expectations for Super 8, it's true, but that's part of the Spielberg magic.  He rarely disappoints.  You can't make a movie based on his work, and expect not to be held to his standard of excellence.

The child director in Super 8 keeps trumpeting the idea that "production values" will make or break his film, but of course, that's not the case.  Production values do not a masterpiece make. 

Someone needed to tell J.J. Abrams to stop obsessing about production values and turn on his heart light instead.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Whispering Sea rises...

My new Space:1999 novel (after 2003's The Forsaken) is in the hands of editors and nearing production for publication (likely in 2012).

In the meantime, Powys Media has posted an interview with me regarding the new book -- The Whispering Sea -- which is set in the series Year Two timeline.

Here's a section from the interview.

Q: How did The Whispering Sea come about?

A: The Forsaken (2003) was well-received by readers and reviewers, and because of my long-standing affection for Space: 1999, I very much wanted to write another series novel for Powys. So the discussion quickly came around to what kind of story to tell for a second novel. This was also after I had written “Futility” and “A Touch of Venus” for Shepherd Moon. At some point, I developed a lengthy outline for a follow-up novel to Forsaken – a kind of indirect sequel – called Ordination, but then we shifted gears to go with The Whispering Sea…which, if I remember correctly, is a title that Mateo gave me. Ordination was more in line with Alpha and Omega, this kind of epic, galaxy-spanning tale about Maya being inducted into the “priesthood” of the Space Brains, and it just got too big. Mateo pointed me in another direction, and we did something more contained, more stand-alone with The Whispering Sea.

Q: The Forsaken is a “bridge” novel spanning the differences between Space: 1999 Years One and Years Two. Is that distinction also true of The Whispering Sea?

A: Actually The Whispering Sea is a bridge novel too. If you think about it, there’s a pretty wide gap between the end of “The Metamorph” and the beginning of “The Exiles.” Maya is already Alpha’s science officer in “The Exiles,” and she seems to already have an established relationship with Tony Verdeschi. So in The Whispering Sea, I’m bridging the gulf between those two episodes and dramatizing the story of Maya’s arrival on Moonbase Alpha. How did she get there? How did she come to fit in? How and why was it decided that she would become Alpha’s science officer? Those are the questions the novel covers.

I'll write additional updates about the book's release schedule as further details become available, and also post images of the book's cover art when it is complete.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Ghosts

Identified by Jose: One Step Beyond: "The Dark Room."

Identified by Chadzilla: Inger Martin in The Twilight Zone: "The Hitch-hiker."

Identified by Chadzilla: Edward Mulhare as Captian Gregg in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1968)

Identified by Jose: Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "The Ghost of Sorworth Place."

Identified by SGB: Dan Mateo (Giancarlo Prete) in Space:1999 "The Troubled Spirit."


Identified by SGB: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Sub Rosa."

Identified by Randal Graves: Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin in The X -Files: "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas."

Identified by Randal Graves: Mr. Crocell (Dean Winters) in Millennium: "The Curse of Frank Black."

Identified by Randal Graves: Jenny Calendar (Robia La Morte) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Amends."


Identified by Nate Yapp: Supernatural: "Pilot."

Identified by SGB: Ghostfreak on Ben 10.