Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

Film and Time Travel

March 9, 2011

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in“. – Always good to start and end with a Henry David Thoreau quotation…

For all intents and purposes, we can say that the modern time travel story began with H.G. WellsThe Time Machine (1895). Modern is another word for science – as opposed to magic – and thus, I guess, I’m speaking of science fiction. For stories about sudden movement in time to qualify as a modern time travel story, there must be, then, a speculative idea about time with some sort of connection to science, no matter how strenuous.

The concept of moving back and forth in time is not a new one. (Yes, we all move forth in time, but you know what I mean…) In the Nihongi, a Japanese collection of early myths and tales up until 697 AD, we find the story Urashimo Taro, about a fisherman moving hundreds of years through time. Washington Irving’s famous story Rip Van Winkle (written in 1819), is about a man falling asleep to wake up a hundred years after. And everyone knows Charles DickensA Christmas Carol (1843), in which Ebenezer Scrooge is taken back and forth in time to witness his own past and future. There are many more examples, with perhaps the Norwegian/Danish Johan Herman Wessel’s play Anno 7603 (written 1781) the most extreme in length of the journey through time. What all these stories have in common is that there is little to none scientific explanation for the chronistic anomalies. Mostly people just fall asleep and wake up in another time than their own. In Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the protagonist is transferred in time by being hit on the head. In Anno 7603, the young couple is transported through time by a fairy; neither a very scientifically sound means of transport…

Well’s The Time Machine is a science fiction novel that has stood the test of time better than many of the author’s other novels. His The Sleeper Awakes can be tough going at times, and as alluded to by the title, is yet another time travel book in which the means of transportation is a long, long sleep. (I think one could do interesting work interpreting the role of sleep in pre 20th century novels and stories). Anyhow, as I thought I should dedicate this post to time travel in films, The Time Machine serves a double purpose, as it is also the first (to my knowledge) mainstream film about time travel (1960). There were examples of time travel films in the silent era and in the 1930s, but these also lacked a certain science in their fiction, so to speak.

Without really having reflected too much on this, I think time travel can serve as a narrative device in almost any kind of stories: The Adventure story, The Comedy, The Thriller, The Drama. Of course, when time travel is introduced, these genres will often be overlapping, and perhaps it is typical of a pulp genre, as science fiction really is, to be gregarious, shall we say, in its handling of narrative strictness. Almost apart from these genres is the pure science fiction story, in which the concept of time is more than a narrative device to get a character to go from B to A, or from D to R. This is what I am tempted to call the hard science story, in which the time travel phenomenon is at least attempted to be explained as something more than the effect of a flux capacitor, and in which the consequences of temporal travel is given its due.

The Back to the Future trilogy contains a bit of all the genres, for example, but falls mainly into the adventure category. Still, there is probably no film that has done more to explain time paradoxes to generations of movie goers. The Terminator films also span a bit of all categories, but are first and foremost thrillers, while Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is, in spite of its title, pure comedy. Of the hard science films dealing with time travel, I can’t think of more than Primer, with perhaps Donnie Darko and 12 Monkeys close behind as what I’ll call serious entertainments.

“I’ve been on a calendar but I have never been on time.”
(- One of a number of Marilyn Monroe quotes I hope really belonged to her and not to some publicist…)

Characters on film can time travel for a number of reasons, they can travel far or very, very short. In Galaxy Quest, 13 seconds back in time is sufficient to avert catastrophe. Often one chooses to go to historically significant years, or periods easily reproduced on film. In Peggy Sue Got Married, it’s back to the 1950s, same in Pleasantville and Back to the Future. Perhaps because of the already mythological familiarity we have with this seemingly more innocent (American) time.

Often, it’s humans from/in the future who travel back to our time; perhaps to comment on contemporary mores from a pseudo-futuristic viewpoint, but not least to save a dollar or two in set design. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, is an example, 12 Monkeys another. In the various TV series incarnations of Star Trek, time travel has occurred quite often, beginning already in the fabulous original series (1966-69). By the way, The Voyage Home is jolly entertaining, at least if you are an Original Series fan!

Another possibility is people from the past travelling to our time, usually because of some freak accident of nature, as the technology is less likely to be available in the past. Two examples and decidedly mediocre films are Kate & Leopold and the French Les Visiteurs. I would instead rather recommend the highly entertaining Time After Time, in which H.G.Wells (played by Malcolm McDowell in one of his few sympathetic portrayals) actually invents a time machine, but unfortunately brings Jack the Ripper with him to present day.

Unfortunately, films about time travel are generally seen as lowbrow entertainment by many critics who should know better, but what can you do? It’s not like they are educated to be critics; no school for that… I still remember an article by the leader of the Norwegian film critics’ society, in which she gave the excellent Donnie Darko 1 of 6 stars, calling it “a terrible film about a rabbit and some time travel nonsense“. It still makes me angry to see that kind of ignorance being spouted by someone whose opinions are actually paid work. (As an aside, she similarly rewarded David Fincher’s Se7en with the solitary star…)

“Time flies like the wind. Fruit flies like bananas.” A bit by Groucho Marx serves to chase my bad temper…

A reason for the low esteem many so called critics – serious or not – hold of time travel films, is of course, that a number of these are very bad films indeed, and make few attempts to elevate themselves from the worst of their pulp origins. However, I do think that the percentage of good vs. bad films in a given genre is rather high when it comes to our current topic.

A couple of reasonably budgeted failures: The One, Déjà Vu and Timecop. While I like Jet Li very much, his English-speaking films have generally been more miss than hit. The perceptive reader will, perhaps, object that The One is more of parallel realities than Time Travelling, but I feel that the two concepts almost always overlap, so I’ll allow it here…The One is under no circumstances among the proudest entries in Li’s filmography. For a better film about parallel realities, see the Korean 2009:Lost Memories… Or, perhaps, the uneven The Butterfly Effect.

While Timecop is far from the worst entry that Jean-Claude Van Damme has blessed the silver screen with, it is indubitably a bad film and brings little of value to the genre. Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu, on the same hand, is so bland that it is forgotten the moment the credits start rolling; the opposite of what one wants from speculative fiction concerning time travel and paradoxes.

“Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life“. – William Faulkner.

One subgenre of time travel is where the protagonists don’t travel through time at all, but are, by some almost magical object, able to communicate with the past. In Frequency, it is an old radio that unites father and son, in The Lake House, it is a mailbox that can send letters from the would be lovers back and forth in time. I’ll also mention the romantic cult favourite Somewhere in Time, where Christopher Reeve hypnotises himself back in time by surrounding himself with old clothes and furniture. This mystical aspect can bring this kind of film closer to the fantasy-genre, than to SF. I don’t quite know, for example, where to place Darren Aronofsky’s ambitious but not perfect The Fountain. Some films are sufficiently complicated – or arty – that we can’t even be sure whether time travel actually is supposed to take place – suffice to mention 2001 – A Space Odyssey.

What, then, are the good time travel films? I’ve tentatively written a list of 10 and then some films, as lists of this type always go to 10. I have cheated, though, by including some sequels. These are a mix of entertaining and cerebral, with 12 Monkeys and Donnie Darko best combining the two traits, with Primer being cerebral, and the rest at the very least jolly entertaining. I guess some would have liked me to include yet another Terry Gilliam film, Time Bandits, but I’ve never managed to really like this, hard as I’ve tried.  Note that two of my choices deal with monkeys – or apes. Hmmm. Don’t tell Sun Wukong

Back to the Future (really all 3 of them)

Terminator (1&2)

Time After Time

Planet of the Apes (original 1969 version, of course)

Los Cronocrimenes


12 Monkeys

Donnie Darko

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
Henry David Thoreau, “Economy“, Walden (1854).

BIFF, Day Three

October 25, 2009

Due to circumstances beyond my control (work), I didn’t get the chance to see that many films this day. I did, though, have an unpleasant encounter with a member of the film jury, which – if not anything else – convinced me that the winner of the festival’s jury prize will be left entirely to chance and incompetence. I wish the festival leaders had considered their jury choices a bit more carefully. More on this later.

mr_nobody_1jpg_rgb2I first became aware of Belgian director Jaco van Dormael with his 1993-film Toto the Hero, which generally got rave reviews and which I liked. I seem to recall that I felt it put an unnecessary sentimentalism to the world of the child protagonist, but I think that was part of its theme. Not having seen the film since its cinema run 16 years ago, I don’t want to compare it with his latest work, which was my first film of the day.

Mr. Nobody is by far his most ambitious project to date. It cost close to $50 million and features at least B-list Hollywood actors. It is filmed at several locations; Belgium, the famous Studio Babelsberg in Germany, in Canada and at several other places. Most of the money, though, must have gone to the impressive special effects which are very, very good. Very complicated fx shots integrate seamlessly with the “real” world and a number of editing tricks and film styles are on display.

The film is not only ambitious from a financial or technical perspective. The story seeks to sum up the entirety of the universe’s existence, and not only this universe. It is at times a period film, a science fiction story and a contemporary love story. It is about storytelling, parallel universes, time travel, religion, immortality and death. Most importantly it is about love.

jaredletomrnobodyJared Leto plays the grown up version of the protagonist Nemo Nobody and he does it well. I think this is his first leading role in a film of this magnitude. Then again, there are not that many films of this scope. In a way I felt the film was never quite only itself, but borrowed from a number of films and from the history of film. Perhaps it had to, but I felt at times that the director had seen the works of other directors he admired and tried to emulate them and, by combining their tropes, hoped to find something personal enough to call his own.
There is a bit of Darren Aronofsky’s the Fountain here, but on an even bigger thematic scale. Kubrick’s 2001 is quoted in some images. In a scene depicting humanity’s pre-existence, the moments before we are conceived, Van Dormael used the Melanesian music from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line while at the same time putting this music to images of white and black children playing innocently together in a heavenly innocent state. So, in other words, welcome to the beginning of The Thin red Line! The basic concept of splitting destinies – of turning into several future versions of oneself – based on a choice made while standing by a train, is found in the less ambitious Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors. The drowning in a car scene reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Europa (By the count of ten you will be dead, as Max Von Sydow laconically narrates in that film). In a way Mr. Nobody is two and a half hours awaiting said count. I could go on, but you get the point.

malickforestIt is not easy to sum up what this film is about. When the protagonist is forced to make a faithful choice at the age of nine (I think), he is separated into two persons, depending on which choice he makes. Within these two possible characters comes a further three choices – which makes it six characters(?) – based on his choice of girlfriend as an adolescent. One version of himself turns out to be a lecturer in astrophysics, who sometimes enters the action to lecture the viewer about the history and philosophy of the universe. He says there are seven dimensions in the universe; six of these are spatial, while the seventh is temporal. He then poses the question of whether the temporal – time – inhabited more than one dimension. (I take this from memory, so forgive me for any inaccuracies!) To complicate matters further, another one of these personalities takes up writing, creating a fictional world that in the film is presented as just as real as the non-fiction worlds. This fiction takes the action to space (to Mars) and the future. However, another future is also depicted in the film, a future where the protagonist is the last mortal human alive (and thus, the last who remembers love and lust; you don‘t need children if you live forever…) There is a point to this, but I won’t discuss it here, so as not to spoil the film.

While the plot of the film seems incredibly advanced and ambitious, to its credit, we are never lost and most times understand perfectly where we are in the story and what is depicted. Actually, I had no problems with the science fiction elements of the tale. They are well thought and very well executioned. It is in the way the film revolves around the concept of love that I feel it loses itself a bit; it becomes a bit too much.

11One kind of love that is decisive for Mr. Nemo Nobody is the child’s love for his parents. Another kind of love is the puppy love between nine year olds, then the lustful love between adolescents and finally the emotional, during and at times hard and stressful love between spouses. Put together, this becomes a whole lotta love, as the song says. Now, if the love theme had been presented a bit more smartly, I wouldn’t have any problems with it. (While it is presented in a complicated tale, this doesn’t make the kind of love on display any more “intelligent” or new to the viewer). Especially irritating is the extremely cliché ridden music the director has chosen for the soundtrack. There are just so many times you can hear Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream… Almost every scene has music that has been used so often before in films that it brings you as a viewer out of the film’s universe and at least I began pondering boredom and references rather than the action taking place before me.

Another unfortunate effect of the music has to do with its placement. When the protagonist as a young boy sees a girl his age, nine, swimming, a lusty soul-number is played, thus turning her into a kind of sex object. This is disturbing and can’t have been the director’s intention. While he wants to tell us that the protagonist falls in love at this moment, there must surely be better ways to sonically enhance this element!

Then there is the fact that all of Nemo’s love stories revolve around three girls that he meets as a young child. I find it a bit far fetched that these same girls shall also be his only interests in adolescence and in marriage. The film is, then, not only about premeditation, but about an emotional stiltedness, as if Nemo doesn’t really evolve during the film and this is the reason for his future being so clearly delineated into his separate possible selves. The name Nemo, by the way, does not refer to the captain of the Nautilus. You’re better served by reading it backwards.

MrNobodyIn closing, I’ll venture to say that the word ambitious will surely be used in pretty much every review of this film. (It wasn’t finished in time for Cannes, so it hasn’t been shown that many places yet). While it is certainly intricate, it ultimately doesn’t convince me. While I’m perfectly willing to take any leaps of logic that the film requires of me, I’m not sure that it ultimately adds up. I have a strong feeling that there are internal discrepancies within the fantastic logic. This should have been worked out a bit better, but I think I will need to see the film a second time to really pinpoint these errors. (And the ones I could point out would ruin the ending, so I’ll refrain).The problem is that, as much as I admired the film for what it’s trying to do, it was just a bit too long and ultimately not all that it could have been, so a second viewing will probably not take place in the immediate future. But if you are in the mood for a lengthy love story told in a brilliant technical style and with a basic sience fiction concept underlining it all, by all means take a chance on the film! I think it deserves an audience and it is without doubt a much better film than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which was half the rave at this year’s Oscars, and which it also shares some sensibility with. Being the better film of the two, I’m also sure that it won’t find half the audience of Fincher’s unfortunate detour into drivel and mediocrity.

While Mr. Nobody may be flawed, it is at least interesting enough for me to have given it more attention and space than most films. This is more, much more than I can say for the next film I had the misfortune to attend this day. I guess I should have seen the warning signs; it being French the clearest.

thumbnailUn Lac – A Lake – is a minimalist work about an epileptic boy, his sister and family in an unknown wintry location. This is the second film as writer/director for Philippe Grandrieux, his fourth as director. On this film, he also serves as cinematographer, so he is an auteur in the real sense. The problem is that he is just not a very interesting one. Most of the actors are, for some reason Russian, and it is filmed in France and Switzerland. And the landscape does seem wonderfully oppressing and beautiful at the same time. That is, if any of the images had been in focus. (The images of the brother and sister found to the left are pretty much the only two clear images of the film)

Grandrieux uses a handheld camera style that is extreme in its use of closeups and movements following the characters so closely that we are supposed to see the world as they themselves do. The mother of the family is blind, though it took me some time to decipher this. Many of the scenes are filmed in near darkness and the ones that are not are foggy and out of focus. The brother has a close relationship with his sister, possibly incestuous, but I was never able to tell for sure. His epileptic fits grows in frequency. He is at times very happy for no apparent reason, at times he is moody. One day he is by the cold lake that seems to be the only contact with a wider world. A young man arrives. He says his name is Jurgen. Soon this man starts a relationship with the sister and finally they sail off on the same lake. This is the film. Or what I managed to see of the film.

UnLac_iwDo not misunderstand me. I have no problems with challenging films, be it in narrative or in film style. This film, however, is ridiculous, very boring and unbearably pretentious. The dialogue is almost non-existent. Perhaps this is a good thing, for when they speak, they speak platitudes. “You are my sister”, the brother says. Then he adds: “I am your brother”. Yes, well, you had me at sister…

Of course one can read something symbolic out of the minimalist setting and action. The more minimalist a work is, the easier to regard it as symbolical of something. But here even the symbolic meaning is trite and clichéd. Perhaps the director wants to deal with archetypes, with a biblical simplicity. If so, he fails miserably. Is he interested in hidden pockets of humanity, of humanity’s place in an unforgiving and uncaring nature? Well, he doesn’t come even close. Perhaps he wants to talk about female sexuality and awakening. If so, he says nothing new and certainly nothing of interest. – If you want an arty film about this, watch Picnic at Hanging Rock again! You will be grateful for it. Do not waste your time with Un Lac. With the basic setting of these characters in this kind of nature, you have to be pretty incompetent not to make it even slightly interesting or even beautiful even in a harrowing sense. Unfortunately, competence has no place here.
It strikes me that writing even disparagingly about the film, I make it sound better than it is. Give me a camera, this location and these characters and I would have made a better film. Look away, there is nothing to see here! By the way, this was a film I had high hopes for and that I really wanted to like. More the fool me.

The Day The Earth Stood Still – Again (Remake 2008)

December 2, 2008

They did it. The fools! They finally did it. Goddamn you! Goddamn you all to hell! – While this outburst would be better suited to Tim Burton’s remake of the Planet of the Apes, I’ll let it herald another cinematic atrocity: They have remade Robert Wise’s science fiction classic The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), and the result is thoroughly unspectacular. Yep, that’s telling ‘em off… Honestly, I wanted the remake to succeed, but my initial scepticism proved, unfortunately, not to be the result of a paranoid mind.

the_day_the_earth_stood_stillIt’s not so often I get the chance to see films some 10 days prior to their world premieres. Thus I was in an elevated mood when the opportunity presented itself today. As one never knows what’s liable to get a man into trouble, I’ll not thank the person responsible for this treat here… I’ve been a fan of the original film since I saw it together with my wife some six years ago. (It’s now one of her favourite films). Of course, we’re not alone in our fandom of the movie; Klaatu Barada Nikto has become something of a household phrase in USA and among nerds and geeks the world over. The 1951-film is one of the best known black and white S/F films ever made and one of the most beloved.

It’s not difficult to see why. The film has a pretty timeless message about humanity’s place on earth. In 1951, the perceived prevalent threat to our existence was the atomic bomb, but one hardly needs to be a rocket scientist to imagine new ways for the human race to destroy itself or its world. Thus, the concerns of Robert Wise’s film can easily be renewed, so to say, or re-energized, by newer generations. Then also the film had going for it the design of an incredibly cool – though borderline dorky, some would say – robot, or automaton as I prefer to call it. GORT wasn’t much more than mansized, but still damn well unstoppable when he got going. That is, until the humanoid envoy of the alien race called him to stop with the succinct “Deglet Ovrosco!” and the now so famous command “Klaatu Barada Nikto”.

I could list, if pressured by Gort, a hundred reasons why the 1951-version of The Day The Earth Stood Still deserves its classic status, but I’ll dedicate this post to some of the hundred reasons why the remake that has an imminent world premiere falls not only short of the original, but falls extremely painfully short, with broken limbs and a smashed skull to show for its toils.

The original film jumps straight to the action. As soon as the credits have played, over images of the universe with Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful soundtrack setting the mood, we get to know that an alien spaceship is about to land on earth. Within five minutes, it has landed in Central Park, and as the film delivers its plotpoints economically, we have also been prior to the reactions to the phenomenon all over the world.

The first problem I have with the remake is that it uses so much of its running time to get to the point. First we have a kind of prologue, which shows us a mountain climber, played by Keanu Reeves, encountering a giant orb-like object in the Himalayas (?) The entire sequence is accompanied by the fakest looking snow I can recall having seen since the more claustrophobic second rate studio pictures of the forties. As it turns out, this sequence has no real bearing on the rest of the film, apart from trying to over-explain some points mentioned later anyway.

Then, as the film proper begins, Jennifer Connelly, who as always does a fine role here, is shown at work handing out homework assignments for a class of students of astrophysics or astrobiology or some such. There is a scene where she is asked on a date by a colleague, an offer she declines. We never see her students, workplace, or colleague again. Couldn’t the film just have told us what her work is? We follow her home, where she meets her stepson. This we know because said son actually tells her: “Don’t be such a stepmom!” I guess we could not be trusted to gather this ourselves. Later in the film, she explains her family history to Reeves’ character, Klaatu. How many times does the audience need to hear the same? Isn’t one of the advantages of the medium that we don’t have to be told everything, as we can actually SEE what is happening. If the “show, don’t tell!”-rule is true for literature, it must be doubly so for films.

The following twenty minutes or so posits exciting questions, such as who’s going to watch the increasingly irritating STEPson while momma is apprehended by the government and what is going on? (I suspect that most viewers, even those unfamiliar with the original film, will have a far better idea about what’s going on than the protagonists. This is seldom a good thing). We follow what can only be described as bureaucratic procedures as Connelly’s character gains access to an emergency area filled with scientists – and one engineer (!) – that have no idea why they are there. After introducing these, the film never lets us see them again. She meets the head of the science community, played by Jon Hamm, always so tired looking in the very good TV-series Mad Men. He looks even more tired here, maybe because the film has no need for him. There is an intimation that he knows Connelly from before, but this thread is not followed up on. Neither is his part in the film, except from a scene towards the end, in which he serves as her driver. Now, that’s a character arc for you!

dayAfter half an hour, the spaceship has finally landed and eventually Keanu Reeves emerges from a cocoon-thingy. For once, Reeves’ wooden acting serves a purpose, as the character is supposed to be inhuman in most aspects apart from appearance. Reeves manages more or less to appear as human, and maybe they should award him a prize for this.

The story is supposed to be a kind of moral parable or a tale of what if? – Can human beings change if they finally know, without any room for doubt, that they are about to destroy themselves – or be destroyed? This is all well and good, but while the original film knew what it was trying to say and said it succinctly and effectively, this remake manages to spend a third of its running time just setting up the situation. Not only does it spend too much time on incidents and characters that ultimately don’t contribute to the story, but the story it does tell is muddled and not convincing, even within its own reality and frame of thought. The filmmakers have tried to make it contemporary and relevant to today, but I never felt convinced by humanity’s right to a continued existence after the evidence presented here.

Global warming and pollution is the atomic bomb of today, the film tells us. This is all well and good, but while the first film showed us this as a challenge to the world, and showed us the world answering, the remake is US-centric to the extreme. While it tries to show the US- government as ill equipped to handle the situation, paradoxically it has no interest in how the rest of the world faces the global threat that GORT and the alien races post. The film initially introduces us to scientists of many cultural and national backgrounds, but it lets these disappear without any further thoughts of their place in the story. Reeves’ alien once tries to get the chance to talk with the UN, but this request is quickly dismissed by the American Secretary of Defence (if I remember correctly), played by Kathy Bates, and for all intents and purposes, both the film and Klaatu forget about the request.

Instead of trusting that the seemingly timeless galactic moral dilemma of whether it is necessary to kill humanity before they kill their planet is sufficient in the stakes department, we are also treated to a back story of Connelly’s husband dying in Iraq and this event’s effect on the remaining family. I can see little reason to include this except as a forced reference to current events that doesn’t even manage to throw the briefest flicker of light on why the father died or how his death has served as the mean of estrangement between mother and stepson that the film tries to convince us of is a deep source of unhappiness. I find myself being obfuscate here, partly because I don’t want to give away too much of the action, but mostly because this part of the story makes little narrative sense and the storyline comes off as downright uninteresting.

day-the-earth-stood-still-screenshotApart from an uninteresting story, which irrelevance is an accomplishment considering the material they had to work with and base the story on, the film has two serious problems: The first is the special effects, which are surprisingly badly made, and the second is John Cleese, or, rather, the casting of Cleese. GORT, the automaton, is initially well made. He is now about ten metres tall, but that is a remake for you, and it kind of works well. However, in his second incarnation, in the latter part of the film, he dissolves – by own volition – into a kind of metallic dust cloud consisting of myriads of tiny metal insects (don’t ask!). Everyone who has seen The Mummy Returns knows how bad digital dust storms can look and this film is definitely no exception. Apart from GORT2, there are a number of bad effects, and as already mentioned, they were not even able to make the snow look convincing.

The worst special effect, though, has to be John Cleese posing as a scientist. People in the movie theatre started giggling as soon as he appeared and immediately began making difficult equations on a black board. Some actors just have too much baggage to work in roles like this. While Cleese could function in the humoristic role of Q in the Brosnan Bond-films, serious acting is another venue altogether. Seldom have I seen a role working so much against the film it appears in as Cleese’s appearance here.

In closing, I know that most will share my deep regret that not even GORT’s commands are given correctly in this film. When the automaton in his first appearance destroys all of the army vehicles and weapons, his humanoid companion, Klaatu, makes him stop his rampage by commanding him “Deglet Ovrosco!”. In the remake, they can’t wait to introduce the iconic (if one can say that about a sentence) Klaatu Barada Nikto, so they use it already at this point. We never hear it again, nor any other commands to GORT. Damn, that’s a shame! Had they had a creative bone in their collective bodies, the film makers could at least have tried to introduce a phrase themselves, something new, something worthwhile, something.

Dr. Horrible

July 3, 2008

I’ll interrupt this program for a special announcement: A new Joss Whedon project will be available for the world to see in all its glory in just two long weeks. The first episode of three of Dr. Horrible’s Sing- Along Blog, will premiere July The second episode will be put up July, and the final July The show stars Neil Patrick Harris (Doctor Doogie, Starship Troopers, How I Met Your Mother) as the wannabe archvillain Dr. Horrible. Nathan Fillion (Serenity, Firefly, Slither, Waitress, etc.) will costar as the good doctor’s nemesis, the too perfect hero of the piece. Felicia Day (of Buffy season 7 and internet rave The Guild), will be on damselly duties. Hear yea, see yea! You’ll be able to see the three part project at this address. For the time being there is only a trailer well worth checking out (with Whedon himself performing the duties of Trailerman, if I’m not mistaken), but be sure to catch this event before July 20th, at which time it will be removed from the site and put up again later as a pay per view thingy. There are plans for releasing the whole little thing on DVD at a later, and so far undisclosed time, but why deprive yourself of quality entertainment  for that long?

Oh, and by the way, yes, it’s a musical.

This is indeed good news for those of us who are waiting impatiently for Whedon’s next project, the TV-series Dollhouse, due to premiere early next year (on a hopefully new and improved Fox Television) and starring Eliza Dushku (Faith from Buffy, as she probably is pretty tired of being called).


During the recent writer’s strike in Hollywood, one of the most active and outspoken members of the Writer’s Guild were Joss Whedon, Creator/Writer/Director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Serenity. While not being able to write anything for television or film during the strike, and while tending to a bad case of the flu, he conceived of an idea that might (with a bit of luck) change the balance of power between the creative and “industrial” sides of the conflict. By going outside the studios altogether and still produce something with sufficient quality to draw the viewers (punters, for you in the UK) in, he could strike two bats in the same belfry, as I like to say…

A significant part of the disagreement that necessitated the Writer’s Strike, had to do with revenue from internet downloads and other distributionary concerns. (I doubt “distributionary” is a word. Well, now it is…) Although I haven’t seen anyone explicitly making the connection between the conflict and Whedon’s new project, apart from noting that he wrote and directed it during the strike, I can’t help but feel that it also serves as something of a validation of his argument during the strike. Internet related products are becoming increasingly important tothe industry – be it as streaming and downloads of television episodes or rental of films or whatever the very near future will offer in terms of technology and institutional usage of such. Of the billions of dollars in play in the newer medium, the creative end of the entertainment industry has had to stick with a miniscule percentage, unchanged since the days that internet was unthinkable as a mass distribution system.

The studios’ reluctance – or downright unwillingness and plain orneryness – to even accept this as negotiable, was perhaps understandable from a purely greedy – or capitalist, if you like – viewpoint. And what other point of view should one expect from them? In the end, after filling the sedated American homes with reruns and reality shows (and one or two talk show judases) for months, an agreement of sorts was reached, but I think quite a number of the creative force had their eyes opened to some of the more unpleasant truths of “the business”.

It’s been well documented that the relationship between the creators and studios, seldom ideal at the best of times, suffered severely. I don’t think we have yet seen the full consequences of this rift. There are some that fear that the studios will act out against the more prominent of the strikers, but these worries have so far been delegated to the paranoid/conspiracy- corner of the internet. We shall see.

Anyhow. Whedon’s idea – and not being content to write two or three comic titles (e.g. Buffy, season 8, Astonishing X-Men, Runaways, vol.3) while standing on the picket line – was to accomplish something within film akin to selfpublishing in literature/comics. Internet should really afford a great opportunity to filmmakers that want to – or can afford to – bypass the studio system. To find an audience for whatever you put out there won’t really be as difficult as making them pay for it. Sometimes, though, the exposure of the work is more important than immediate monetary gains. This is particularly true for up and coming artist. Also, chances are that the production will have to be quite a lot cheaper than a studio financed film would allow for.

Relatively unknown filmmakers have for some time used the internet as a venue to showcase their smallish films/episodes, what have you. The mentioned The Guild, by and with Felicia Day, is an example. I think the course she has taken with her project is valid and sound. It’s comedy, fairly broad – although aimed at a certain target audience – and firmly rooted in the real world – even though it’s about people living in an unreal world, and as each episode only lasts some five minutes, it does not outstay its welcome. The production costs should not be excessive, neither, as the actors presumably work more or less for free. The genius of showcasing the series on internet, is that it’s about the very people most likely to be heavy consumers of internetrelated material and highly trained at finding niche products on the net.

Internet geeks – and I don’t mean that at all derogatory – have buying power as a group. The trick is making them want to pay for something they have ways to get for free. Here is where a term like fandom can come into play, so to speak. If the geek – and I could include myself in that group – really likes something, he or she will likely want to see it survive, and if this can be done by paying for a product instead of downloading it for free, said geek/fan will easily do this.

We all know us nerds/geeks/fans have an affinity for material traditionally belonging in comics or pulp: Superheroes and science fiction done right, done as well as good comics have been done. The problem is that these types of programs have severe problems reaching outside its niche audience, and as such seems to be terminally on the brink of cancellation. Of course, this has changed slightly the last five or six years, with superheroes and SF finding a hitherto unknown success in the cinemas – and especially on DVD.

Still, the average American – and World citizen at large – prefer more traditional entertainment when it comes to television. Once in a very blue moon, a show manages to break out – such as Lost and Heroes, but even the fans of these series (which should consider themselves lucky for being fans of SF series that actually do almost all right in the Nielsen Ratings) are constantly worrying that this season will be the last, that the ratings sink gradually for every season. (The truth is that neither Heroes nor Battlestar Galactica had the number of viewers their second seasons that would normally mean an automatic renewal of their network contracts. But since the viewers the series do have are quite sought after among the advertisers, they manage to stay on).

As a consequence of this insecurity, us fans of what has traditionally been deemed nerd entertainment, will buy the DVDs of our favourite shows rather than download them from some pirate site, we will talk about the shows to anyone who cares to listen and to those who don’t, we will, in short, pay good money for the products we would like to see survive the ruthlessness of ratings, and we will do lots of advertising for free. I’m convinced this gives these types of entertainment a competitive edge that will never befall, say, Grey’s anatomy or Entourage. I like Entourage, but I wouldn’t bother to feel any kind of obligation for the show’s survival. Not like with Firefly or Buffy or Galactica or Heroes.

So, when Joss Whedon, an established writer/director, offers a new creation of his for free, I believe him when he claims it is to give something back to the fans, but clearly he is also testing the waters for the “real” value of fandom. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog will be, I assume, a low budget affair. Whedon has the respect and admiration of his actors – even those who have gone on to (slightly) bigger things, and they will initially work for free for such a hobby project of his. They know that their involvement in a Whedon project automatically generates an enormous good will from the fans of the Whedonverse, and besides they seem generally decent people and not overtly obsessed with trailers and entourages and the follies normally accompanying actors on some kind of brink to some kind of starhood. But still, it’s always risky to partake in something as untried as this.

Whedon’s decision to premiere his show for free for the fans that has the wherewithal to know about the scheduled airing dates, and then later charge for the experience, could be comparable to the release of Radiohead’s latest album, where they charged people as much as people wanted to pay. But it is still more safe than Radiohead’s gamble (which was not really that much of a gamble, since they can afford not to earn millions for every record). I think Whedon’s fans are more loyal, for one thing, and it’s easier to support someone that we know is not a worldwide household name, and that has to struggle to see almost all of his intended projects come to fruition. Whedon knows the show will be pirated, but he has to trust that the product and financial support thereof, will prove the validity of the show. (And that us Whedonites will hope for a sequel?) And he has the geek vote, and that will take him quite some of the way. Were Michael Bay, say, to initiate such a project, I can pretty much guarantee no one would bother to pay for it, even though it had more viewers than sense.

It will be interesting to see whether Whedon actually can declare some kind of success with this show/experiment. The definition of success could vary from artistically sound to commercially viable. If nothing else, it should generate sufficient word of mouth to strengthen his position in the industry as a hero for the geek community, and as such strengthen his bargaining chips with Fox or other networks as he presents a new series. I, for one, have faith in the project. One of my favourite episodes of Buffy, was “Once More With Feeling”, the now famous all musical episode, and Whedon certainly showed he had an ear for catchy musical numbers (he wrote all the music), as well as the visual flair needed to handle the genre. Dr. Horrible is a musical. It cannot be bad. I’m excited. And I’m not alone. I think.