Approaching Science Fiction – Stop Setting Phasers To ‘Dumb’

Those who follow my blog posts will no doubt have noticed the recent section I’ve created entitled ‘Rapid Reviews’. This is where I take a DVD release (old or new) and review it as quickly as I can. One of the latest reviews I wrote was for the new Star Trek film, which very nearly made it is a four star film but just missed out. Some people (for some bizarre reason) disagreed with my judgement and slated the film for being too action packed. I refer these people back to my review, particularly the section where I discussed the different themes and underlying messages, clearly they were too blinded by the lens flares to notice what was right in front of them. It didn’t annoy me that much, it did however get me thinking about science fiction and the layers behind it.

When outsiders to science fiction take a glimpse at it all they mainly see is two actors, one dressed in terrible alien costume, in front of a strange setting and locked in poorly choreographed combat (not your best moment Shatner). Not being able to look past this shows quite an unengaged and impatient person if you ask me. The depths that some pieces of science fiction explore are so much more than what you see on screen. Take ‘Star Trek’ itself for example, the basic message behind it is that equality is something we should strive for. It displays a hopeful future where people live together harmoniously, regardless of gender, ethnicity, age or any other factors. Admittedly it’s not all perfect and the sense of conflict is still present, but that’s just what happens when a fleet of Klingon war-birds are approaching and shields are at 30%. Regardless of this people take one look at Leonard Nimoy in the ‘silly ears’ and give up watching, which denies them access to one of the best forms of entertainment; intelligent sci fi.

From watching as much science fiction as I have you start to develop an understanding of who has a true grasp of the subject matter, and who quite frankly hasn’t. Ridley Scott is one for me that is a pioneer of science fiction, he steers away from the bog standard 12A certificate sci fi fling and presents the audience with a piece of intelligent cinema that means something. Take ‘Blade Runner’ for example, one of the best science fiction films of all time, not only was it a big, bold and unashamed science fiction film but it had depth. The underlying messages focused on quite a central idea; the idea of wanting to meet your maker. The characters that are replicants have actions that at first seem irrational and odd, until you realise that they’re merely representing the human instinct present without an understanding of rules or boundaries. The film focuses a lot on the human condition, testing the audience on what it means to be human, and what makes us who we are. There are action sequences admittedly, but they show a more gothic approach to science fiction, with Rutger Hauer giving an outstanding performance as a machine that has the freedom all humans want and the question that all humans ask; why are we here?

It’s a message that Scott keeps quite close to him in his films, ‘Prometheus’ had quite a similar message behind it. The key characters of the film are all questioning the same thing; who is their maker? The humans are on the search for who made them and what they were designed for, and then the robot character of David, played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender, understands fully who made him and what he was made for so he questions what intrigues the humans so much. It’s the sort of science fiction that makes you think about how small you are as an individual human, and if there is ever going to be an explanation for our existence. Linked closely to this there is the idea of questioning religion and faith in ‘Prometheus’, with the main character making use of the response “because it’s what I choose to believe” when justifying her actions. It shows truly intelligent sci fi when a film plunders such depths and presents philosophical arguments. David questions why Doctor Shaw still has faith even after all of the pain and loss she suffers, but she represents the human urge to seek the truth.

Cinema isn’t the only place you’ll find science fiction that has meanings to it as well, all you need to do is flick through your television channels on a Saturday and you’re sure to stumble across one of the most important science fictions creations of all time; ‘Doctor Who’. Running for fifty years now ‘Doctor Who’ is one of the single greatest science fiction creations ever to be made, presenting the audience with an interesting character that is both human and yet not human and adventures every week that take the audience away from their lives for a short period of time. The character of the Doctor is very interesting because he represents a lot of ideas linked to being human, such as the sense of adventure we all share and the need to find someone who you consider a friend. The Doctor is just like any human, he had the chance to run away from the reality of life and took it to go off and live properly, an experience I think everyone will admit they want. The show allows a lot of room for thought because it’s the alien side to the Doctor that makes him friends, and the human side that takes them away. It makes you think about the ones you love and how much you’re willing to do for them. 

On the other hand I know that a crucial element of science fiction is the action because that’s all part of the adventure. I mean if I’m honest if I want to possess a working time machine, alone with a sonic screwdriver, lightsaber and phaser. I understand that different people take different thinks from watching film and television, but being open minded helps when it comes to pieces of intelligent science fiction. I’m not saying that what I take away from science fiction is down to me watching them correctly and others not doing so results in them not enjoying it. I just feel as though judging something before you understand it properly somewhat holds you back from the key purpose of it. The purpose of it is to enjoy the experience in any and every way you can, and I thoroughly hope everyone does.

 

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Adapting Literature For The Big Screen – At Least Pick Good Source Material

I feel I should start with an apology for not posting anything for a while now. I’m currently working on a drama piece that I’ve written and am in the process of directing at the moment so that is taking priority. I should be getting back in to the swing of things now so do not fear.

Not so long ago there was a bit if a rumble in the news, the film adaptation of ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ found itself landed with two leading actors in the form of Charlie Hunnam and Dakota Johnson. The internet began overflowing with various comments about the decisions made, some filled with optimism, others filled with outrage. Personally I still feel annoyed that the film is being made in the first place. It’s going to be based on a book that is badly written, with little story or substance, that promotes rather old fashioned views of male dominance. It may be a case of the film being different from book, with the director choosing not to display certain elements, but if it’s a case of the film following the book tightly, then Houston we have a problem.

The thing about making film adaptations of literature, for me, is that the book has to be good to give the film a chance of being good. Some of the best films in my opinion come from books that were fantastic in the first place. Take F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic ‘The Great Gatsby’ for example, that book is a work of art. It presents characters that are strong and have depth, with Gatsby himself representing the greed that hides in all humans, but also the love that we all have towards others. The book itself is written very well, with descriptions so detailed you can visualize the vast city landscapes of the 1920s, and contrast it to the dining experiences of wealthy landowners. One of the key elements that stands out for me also is the dialogue; it contrasts each character so beautifully, singling them as separate entities in conversation. Gatsby has a rather crisp feel to his speech, speaking like a man of the world who has everything and yet nothing and as someone confident in social situations, and then Nick Carraway represents the quieter members of society and what happens to them once mixed in to a world of lavish wealth and cold deception. The underlying messages of the book, crucially the idea of wanting something you cannot have, make the book an interesting experience, compelling you to read on with every page. The book is an utter masterpiece and it has depths that film makers can explore and do something with. The latest screen adaptation (I refer you to my review of it in a previous post) was a little over the top but it shows you just how much freedom there is in making a film based on a book that is genuinely brilliant.

The beauty of books it that they have the potential to transport the reader to a world that is different from their own, which is why I feel that ‘The Hobbit’ is one of the best pieces of literature to be written, and one of the best to be picked for cinema adaptation. The world that Tolkien creates is so artistic, with creatures that are chilling and obscure, and settings that require an extremely artistic mind to put to the big screen. It’s an exciting adventure that presents some interesting themes such as the value of friendship, and the idea of grasping great opportunities with both hands. The character of Bilbo Baggins is key to the book, he represents the hunger than all humans have to seek adventure and see things that could never be seen again. It’s heart warming to follow Bilbo on his journey from being a shy and uncertain character, to one who is brave and intelligent in the face of danger. The book is masterfully written, with strong characters that you actually care about, and a journey that we would all like to be part of, so it’s very exciting to see what is produced for the big screen based on what the book presents us with.

If there is one book I’m glad has been adapted to cinema, it has to be Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’ quite simply because it is brilliant. It’s written by someone who clearly loved sci fi enough to spot it’s weaknesses and take the mick out of them. There is a real sense of adventure but also a fantastic sense of humour, one that you have to think about to find what’s funny about it. The beautiful combination of science fiction and humour means the jokes are clever, they’re written by someone who was intellectual and carefully constructs jokes that are different. I consider Arthur Dent to one of the best, if not THE best characters of all time for the simple reason that he is so human. He’s comfortable in his own little life that’s clearly meaningless and insignificant but then is pushed head first into a completely different life of space travel and contacting aliens. He is a perfect representation of how human we can all be at times; sad in our pyjamas, drinking something that relaxes us on a day of the week we dislike for petty reasons. He links well to some of the key themes of the novel; sense of adventure, the idea of falling in love, but most importantly what it means to be human. He questions himself at times because his behaviour on occasion is different from what he would expect, which is precisely what we all do at times, and we only realise it when once it’s printed on to a page in black and white. The recent film adaptation wasn’t the best film ever made, but I don’t care; I really enjoyed it. Martin Freeman was perfectly cast as Arthur Dent, and with a script that very much mirrored the author’s vision, it’s a film that made it on to my list of favourite films, and one that is staying there for the foreseeable future.

I understand that making books in to films is very difficult, there’s the whole issue of the films not being able to include everything from the book, but it depends entirely on the book. People have always complained about the Harry Potter films saying that they left out huge sections and details from the books, but if the film makers added everything single detail to the films then they would be worse than they already are. It’s an unpopular opinion but I’m not a massive fan of the Harry Potter series, well at least the films anyway. However I can appreciate the ambition behind them and the film makers intentions where clearly in the right place.

The key element that separates any of the films/ books mentioned from Fifty Shades of Grey is the characters; they’re human. The ones in Fifty Shades of Grey are not human. And if they are then they are very poor examples of human beings, ones that shouldn’t be allowed to have screen presence. The connection to them isn’t something I want to feel, nor am I going to feel. Unless my values change and I suddenly feel the urge to watch characters that are essentially ignoring the idea of gender equality and throwing the audience back in to the 1950s. There’s so much wrong with the book I can only hope that the director is going to do something completely different with it. I agree with the good doctor Kermode; for a film fan there is nothing better than the surprise of something you thought was going to be bad actually turning out to be good. That is the extent of my optimism.

Some people will argue that the book is different. It is. Some people will argue that it’s artistic. It isn’t.

Some people already hold the view that it’s not possible to make an artistic film based on sex without it being sleazy. Clearly none of these people have seen ‘Boogie Nights’.

 

Rapid Reviews – Silver Linings Playbook

I’ve been meaning to write a review of this film for quite some time now, but I wanted to wait until a second viewing. Now the reason I wanted to do this was because the first time I watched it, I was really impressed by it, and I didn’t want it to be a film that I could only appreciate the first time around. After the second viewing, it’s safe to say that my view is not changed, it is quite brilliant.

Firstly I feel as though I should praise the writing behind the film, I haven’t read the novel that inspired the film but I intend to because of what a brilliant story it presents. In terms of the film itself David O.Russell had done a spectacular job with the screenplay; it was interesting, it was funny, it had a certain charm to it. He clearly understood the depths of the characters he was dealing with, and to be honest I think he was robbed of an academy award. The award for Best Adapted Screenplay went to Argo, which if I’m honest did have a good writer and the screenplay was also good, but it wasn’t as brilliant as that of Silver Linings Playbook. The screenplay was witty but then equally successful as presenting the audience with the serious elements of the story.

Next I have to address the cast of the film; brilliant on all accounts. Bradley Cooper was superb, he dealt with the layers of his character very well and he reflected all sides of the character’s condition which really stood out for me. He was worthy of the nomination for an academy award, but with the tough competition he had this year it wasn’t going to be good news for him. Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver are great in their supporting roles, their powerful portrayal of emotions worked very well on screen and they had good chemistry with the other actors involved. But, the star of the cast for me was Jennifer Lawrence. I know it is very easy to jump on the band wagon and praise the winner of the academy award, but I can’t help watching the film and realising how much she deserved it. Her personality as someone in that mind set was brilliantly accompanied by her personality as a dancer, with strong emotions and sharp delivery of lines she gave a sound performance that showed just how talented she is.

While on the subject of dancing I have to mention the directing, which I thought was superb. I’ve admired David O’Russell’s work in the past, in particular ‘The Fighter’, but once again he proved his skill as a director. His visual style is interesting because he does try to make the film very close to real life which he pulls of brilliantly, and he handles both faster paced scenes and scenes of dialogue well. I really liked the dance element of this film, his directing was very tight but flowed excellently so the dance sequences showed the nature of both characters personalities as people and their separate entities as dancers. It’s all well and good making a film romantic and funny, with punch ups in between, but the dancing added a really nice artistic element to the film. It was different from work I’ve seen of his in the past but O.Russell showed his talents to an even further extent with this film, truly terrific job.

Lastly I feel I should talk about the themes of the film, there was a lot linked to people suffering with mental health problems and how they deal with them, which are sensitive topics but were handled very well in the film. There were also themes linked to love and the importance of having an other half to support you which I thought were good. One big theme for me that stuck out was this message of how important the family is, for support and guidance through rough times and looking out for each other. These themes also linked very nicely to an overall message of having a second chance, and wanting to change your life for the better, which really made me feel uplifted and happy upon finishing the film. I really liked that message, it reflected the feeling I think we all have as humans; wanting the opportunity for a second chance and to make the most out of life.

Overall I would give the film four stars, it was a genuinely interesting and enjoyable experience to watch and I would happily watch it again. It wasn’t completely perfect, but to be honest I’m not really fussed; it was a charming film that made me feel happy throughout. An outstanding performance by the cast, and David O.Russell as the director and writer. I would recommend this film to anyone, I know some may be cynical towards it because it is in some aspects a romantic film, but I think it’s shameful to think like that. It takes a truly narrow minded person to watch this film and not look past one element of it, because in essence you are ruining it for yourself. Approach it with an open mind and you’ll leave the film feeling both entertained and uplifted.

Rapid Reviews – Star Trek Into Darkness [DVD]

Quite simple to start off this review; I think it’s brilliant. As both a film nerd and a science fiction nerd, this film pleases me on a number of levels.

If you liked the previous film, released in 2009, then this film will not disappoint. The story sees the crew of the enterprise embarking on a mission to track down the man who infiltrated and attacked Starfleet. It sounds simple but it’s been written very well so it is a film that you have to keep up with. I think the writers of the film did a very good job with the story and indeed the screenplay. The screenplay for me was particularly good because it had a strong balance of intelligence and this rather absurd humour where quite a simple remark from a character you love will leave you in fits of laughter. The writers of it clearly understand the classic characters from the original television series but then equally they know the twist that has been brought about by the recent film, so it’s just a relief to see they’ve handled it so well.

The acting is just top notch, the crew of the Enterprise is just fantastic. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto work very well as Kirk and Spock, with this odd chemistry of brains versus instinct both clashing and yet accompanying each other at the same time. I have to say Quinto has grown on me, I love how emotionless he really is in the film, however you do get to see a darker side to him at times in the film. Karl Urban is still brilliant as Bones, rather grumpy and not afraid to voice his opinion (quite easy to relate to for me), as well as John Cho, Zoe Saldana and Anton Yelchin still doing a terrific job.

For me the best of the enterprise was Simon Pegg as Scotty, he is absolutely brilliant. His accent is near perfect, his emotions are very energetic and powerful, and his delivery of lines is so smooth. I really liked the fact he had more of a main role in the film as it showed just what he is capable of. However the star of the film (pardon the pun) is Benedict Cumberbatch as the main villain: Khan. I have never been so terrified of that man in all of my life, he is phenomenal as a villian. His raw anger matched with this rather chilling personality worked very well and he gave one hell of a performance. He was strong both intellectually and physically and there are times he had me genuinely terrified so he was definitely a man who shouldn’t be messed with. As far as I’m aware the cast sparked numerous amounts of nerdgasms nationwide.

The special effects for the film were incredible, and if you found the lens flares a problem then you clearly weren’t engaged enough in the film. I think J J Abrams did a terrific job directing, handling a strong cast very well but also in the action sequences. What impressed me about both this film and the previous film is the action and chase sequences, they’re very gritty and are paced well enough so you can see every detail of what happens. Abrams is clearly someone who is passionate about film and sci fi and it is easy to see that in his work because of the attention to detail he has.

There were some quite interesting themes present which I really liked about this film. There is quite a strong underlying message about terrorism and the option to intervene, so there is a depth to the film that really links well to our modern world and various social factors. I also rather liked the themes linked to ‘brain versus instinct’ because it really gets you thinking about how you handle tough situations and dilemmas based on overbearing thoughts of the consequences. There is also quite a lot to do with revenge and people paying for their actions, which goes for both the heroes and the villain of the film because you can see pros and cons on both sides. Your moral compass is tested while watching this film so keep your wits about you. The message from the original Star Trek series of racial and gender equality is still present, despite the shot of Alice Eve in her underwear that sparked off numerous debates. I don’t approve of the use of the shot and it was a slip up that Abrams has apologised quite rightly for.

Overall I would give the film three and a half stars but it is ever so close to four stars and just sits on the border. It wasn’t perfect but it was a big, bold and unashamed science fiction film that ticked the boxes of what makes a good sci fi film so it pleased me as a film and sci fi nerd. It’s fast paced but there is some interesting dialogue in there too. Possibly if it was slowed down a bit the cracks may begin to form and it might give the audiences heads a rest quickly, but it’s not a major problem. I like that it was a big sci fi romp because it pleased fans massively without losing it’s nerve in the climate of modern cinema audiences. I would recommend this to anybody who is a fan of either star trek or science fiction. And to anybody who hasn’t watched this or the first Star Trek film from 2009, I heavily recommend both of them.

Rapid Reviews – Dark Shadows [DVD]

Do you remember Edward Scissorhands? Really well structured, artistic film with different underlying themes? That was the genius of Tim Burton in 1990. Now fast forward to 2012, and to one of Tim Burton’s latest creations; Dark Shadows. All I can say to Tim is what the hell happened?

I saw the trailer for the film beforehand and I admit it made me laugh, there was a certain charm to it and it looked as though it could be very interesting. Then I watched the film. Which is an experience I can only describe as being similar to looking at pictures of a hotel online, seeing they’ve got a nice pool, then going to the hotel and finding out that it’s just a puddle. It was a mess and a half of a film.

I don’t think I could describe the story, because it starts in the usual Tim Burton way of being very dark and dreary and then just looses it’s nerve later as it panics whilst trying to find itself. It didn’t really have a plot line that you stick with throughout, you just watch the characters going from one event to the next. It felt as though the writers sat down to brainstorm key moments of the film, but then didn’t link them together. It doesn’t flow at all and it just left me with a lot of questions like “why is she now suddenly that?” “why did he do that to those people?” and most importantly “why do I care about these people”.  The characters are written to be quirky and have their own little personalities but they actually felt quite flat so I didn’t feel connected to them in any form.

Also on the subject of writing I have to talk about screenplay; absolutely awful. It was boring and had no imaginative spark to it, with the best jokes being formed in the trailer by stitching different moments of the film together. It wasn’t as funny as it should have been, and there are a lot of scenes spent just talking aimlessly about what I can only describe as ‘stuff’ or ‘gothic stuff’. Either Seth Grahame-Smith got heavily bored whilst writing the screenplay or he just has a total lack of both imagination and the ability to articulate.

In terms of acting, it was very similar to many Burton films: Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter do their thing that we all know well enough by now. I will say that in the film’s defense Eva Green did a good job of playing the main villain with a good mix of being dark and mysterious but also with a mischievous element too. However her ability was knocked out of focus by the appearance of a young Chloe Grace Moretz, who for this particular film had all the skill of a GCSE drama student, so instead of appreciating Eva Green more I found myself getting annoyed will young miss Mortetz. Quite a poor effort from the cast, but to be honest with the material they were given, there wasn’t a lot of room to squeeze talent in.

The whole style of the film feels very outdated. It felt as though Burton was trying to relive the days of Beetle Juice and Edward Scissorhands and it really didn’t work for me. There’s pointless scenes of violence that add nothing to the film, the characters are meant to be quirky and dark but in the end they just feel odd and out of place, and there is a lot of references to older gothic films but they literally feel as though they are ingredients added to a cake mixture just before it’s put in the oven. In particular, later in the film it got really boring because of all the silly violence that kicked in and amounted to nothing so it felt rather pointless. It did not have the artistic nature of creative flare that Burton has had in the past.

All in all I would give the film two stars, it was a really poor effort from a film maker that I actually rather like. It was loud and trashy with no real appeal or spark to it, and to be honest it felt as if it was really ill disciplined. I won’t say it was completely terrible because admittedly I did giggle a couple of times, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that it’s a mess. The story and characters are both shambolic so the structure of the film collapses. There are not themes or messages present and it felt as though Burton was making the film for a bit of fun, which if you are going to do, at least do it in a Tarantino styled way so the film is at least partially enjoyable. Personally I feel that it failed as both a comedy and a drama so it sits in the void of films, waiting for a day when someone will come along and feel a connection that I struggled to find. I don’t plan on watching the film again, I was put through the pain of it once and I don’t think a second viewing is going to change my mind. To anyone planning to watch it, just think twice and don’t watch it based on the fact you liked the trailers.

So to sum up, in the words of Mark Kermode: “wasted my time I did”.