I am a UK person, I came to Flixist from yonder Dtoid *gestures at distant mirage* because I like films and would like to moan about films and/or find out about all the upcoming movies that may have skin on show in them! :D
When it comes to films I think I'd probably describe myself as someone with very particular tastes - I tend to split what I like between films I like for their artistic merit and the themes they discuss, and then films I like for their comedic or entertainment value.
I'm a pretty big sci-fi/horror/cyberpunk fan, so films like Alien, Aliens, Blade Runner and Terminator are some of my favourites. I also like a lot of post-modern or experimental stuff, body-horror is interesting, and I like films that subvert genres and convention in some way.
So Star Trek Into Darkness is a thing that released recently, and being as I went to see it at the cinema this last weekend and I haven't really written anything in a while I thought I'd jot some of them there words down about it!
(Possible spoilers included.)
I'll be honest, I didn't really like the first (reboot I mean) Star Trek movie all that much, it was well-made and rather bombastic but the story felt like a lot of twisting and turning to basically give fans of the original films a whole lot of titillation (as well as the actual titillation that happened when the scantily clad alien ladies popped up); I mean Leonard Nimoy cameos, people keep saying 'James T Kirk' as if it were a knowing nod to the audience, and there's this whole time loop thing.
It just felt... wrong, somehow. A film shouldn't spend that much time referencing another film, no matter how popular or how good the film it's referencing is. Hollywood seems to be doing that a lot lately, which I think is a shame.
But yeah... Into Darkness was pretty fun though! Without intending to sound too critical it's not exactly the type of film you go into expecting Shakespearean performances from the actors or any sort of deep allegory for the ills of society in it's plot but it's entertaining. I'll admit the fan service thing does become something of an issue later on in Into Darkness as well, but the first two-thirds of the film is spent telling an original story: A terrorist attack occurs at the heart of the Federation, Kirk, after being briefly relieved of his command is given it back and shooed off towards the neutral zone to hunt down the one and only Sherl... errr, Commander John Harrison. He's given these super duper top-secret torpedoes you see, that are obviously very special, and totally not suspicious, so everything of course goes swimmingly!
Err... ok, maybe not so much.
Just as an aside before I start complaining properly: I would like to stop and be super geeky for a moment to point out that I really loved the location design for a lot of the CGI spaces, the hangerbays, the cityscape, the large open spaces. There's several points in the movie where they're walking through crowded virtual spaces and those spaces are beautifully detailed and hectic, and feel real in a way that the original films' locations never felt.
Whatever faults the film may have whoever organised/directed those background 3D environments really did a great job of making them feel alive, something that isn't necessarily easy to do with Sci-Fi.
But anyway... things sort of get messed up at that point in the plot, as the story turns on it's head to give you a rather unexpected twist (atleast, I really wasn't expecting it.)
And the film was going pretty well upto about this point.
My main complaint with the film is with the last third though and the problem of fan service resurfacing; Into Darkness isn't as bad as the original in that respect, because we've got past the awkward re-introducing the new old characters... the old new characters... THE CHARACTERS. But once the twist comes, and once we find out who Harrison is the film does sort of devolve into a parody/bizarre echo of the Wrath of Khan, missing out all the good stuff and just touching on the bits that had poignancy in the original (Spock's sacrifice, Khan's identity and grudge) and hold sway in pop culture, but really have no meaning outside of the Wrath of Khan's story.
Films obviously involve a certain degree of reference even if we don't realise it they reference other films and culture in general to a certain extent to be entertaining but when a remake of a film or atleast a sequel to a remake/reboot that is clinging to that original franchise, relies so much on echoing elements from a film in that series then it feels oddly hollow, and this is Into Darkness' problem for me.
Into Darkness starts off as an interesting new story involving this new James T Kirk and his crew but then sadly devolves into just referencing moments from the Wrath of Khan and calling Leonard Nimoy up on speed dial just so he can say he can't say anything really? We needed that scene? It's a shame aswell, the film starts off really interesting, and is at all times entertaining, but does get very convoluted and over-complicated towards the end.
I sort of feel this is Hollywood's problem generally atm, the industry has a huge back catalogue of original stories but because of the ever-increasing demand for higher and higher box office sales movies have ended up costing so much to make that everybody's afraid to be original, unless they're being original by remaking or rebooting another film... but that's not really original. So we get these films with gigantic budgets that are a combination of already successful movie plots, check box lists of whatever focus groups think makes a good movie and a smidgen of originality, and though sometimes they're successful they're not necessarily great movies.
Into Darkness isn't terrible, it's an enjoyable experience but at times it's obvious somebody was stood over the writers whispering about adding a cleavage shot here or a bit of fan service there, and it's disappointing. At times the film's great, at others cluttered, very, very cluttered. I did enjoy it though, probably didn't help too much that we were sat way too close to the screen, and then there were those people on either side of us who decided to sit through the entire credits... really, people? Do names flashing on a screen excite you that much?
So, it came to me the other day that there's a certain lack of creative ambition when it comes to mainstream film-making, it certainly seems like there are now more small-time films being made than ever on niche subjects but the big studios seem generally afraid to invest in new ideas. Hollywood is stuck in an endless cycle of either remaking the same films or remaking the same formulas with ever so slight changes - just enough new to interest people but not enough to make a really original contribution to film.
Oh, and Transformers movies.
Sitting through much of what Hollywood churns out you'd be forgiven for thinking that creativity starts and ends at films about white dudes blowing stuff up and quirky couples getting it on. It doesn't. There's a lot more out there that's never really been touched by Hollywood, and even the texts behind some of the stuff Hollywood has done already have more nuance than they usually let on. This is especially true of Sci-Fi.
On the one hand Sci-Fi has always been about the out of the ordinary being exciting in and of itself β it's easier to get excited about a futuristic hovercar chase than just a car chase (though both would be exciting) because hovercars aren't something we're used to seeing in our daily lives (atleast outside of fiction), and familiarity breeds indifference to some degree; on the other hand Sci-Fi has also been a means by which difficult or challenging issues can be raised, mostly because the fictional, often 'other-worldly' elements, create a distance to the message that allows real issues to be discussed without the kind of consequences there might be if they were discussed out in the open in real-life.
Planet of the Apes for example, hints at a range of issues, including our own self-destructive tendencies, the cold war reaching nuclear fruition (through our own destruction), the possibility that humankind could one day no longer be the dominant species on Earth, and racism and prejudice (with the differing treatment of the various primate groups and humans.)
Blade Runner explored what it means to be human, and whether being organically 'human' really counts when a synthetic lifeform can be almost as indistinguishably human as the real thing.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though not intended as a film about a potential communist invasion does have those undertones; the fear, the paranoia, the threat of seeing everything you know consumed by the 'other'. Exploring what it'd be like if everything we know was overtaken and invaded by an 'alien' force.
Sci-Fi at it's best is both enjoyable and a medium through which difficult social issues can be tackled, entertaining and challenging at the same time. Even if a movie doesn't challenge us on a relevant social issue it can offer a challenge to our world view β for example making us question fundamental beliefs say about religion, existence, or even our own worth as a human individual.
Admittedly, a lot of the Sci-Fi from the last forty or fifty years has done this already, and it's only because a challenging precedent was set by earlier Sci-Fi that I can sit here being presumptuous enough to say that forthcoming Sci-Fi should also challenge our modern world just as much as those films critiqued the society they came from.
I think it should though, especially since even today a lot of Science Fiction writing remains relevant, if not because the societies those authors depicted mirror exactly our own then because they offer an interesting potential parallel for some of the issues we face in the modern world. When I was a fair bit younger and obsessed by anything even vaguely weird and Sci-Fi I had hoped that eventually Hollywood would make it's way onto devouring a lot of this material, especially considering some of the bizarre and often difficult material that's already been put to film. It's a shame they haven't really because it means a lot of very interesting stories remain untouched and unknown to so many.
Philip K. Dick's work is a good example of this. He was a prolific short-story writer, writing just over a 120 stories, tackling some very interesting themes and issues, and though several of his stories have been the basis for some pretty big films (Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report probably being the biggest) they still only represent a small fraction of the topics he covered in his stories, with a lot of very interesting stories as yet not made into films.
'The Trouble with Bubbles', follows a future society where space travel is a reality and humankind has stretched out into space, but with it has come the shattering of man's dream to reach out and find life besides ourselves. Space is apparently empty, and we are alone, and this realisation has turned into a social malaise as people become frustrated about humanity's loneliness, with many resorting to the crafting of the 'bubbles' as a sort of relief. The bubbles are tiny encapsulated worlds, where everything works at an accelerated pace and individuals are encouraged to craft and create their own society in a bubble. The story is basically a 'What if' about what happens if we don't ever find other lifeforms and it is just us in the universe, it's about frustration and anger that a realisation of our own position in the universe might breed and the destructive tendencies it might invoke β shown in the 'tradition' that has arisen of breaking your bubble at a certain stage in its lifetime.
'James P. Crow', is about a society where war between robot and man has devastated Earth and it's history and subsequently robots have become the dominant 'species', with humans largely relegated into a social quasi-slavery. It's a short exploration of how cultural identity affects us and how damaging prejudice and bigotry can be.
'Planet for Transients' has a similar post-war vibe, with it set hundreds of years after a nuclear war has decimated the planet. The surface of the Earth has become radioactive, and as such the surviving 'human beings' have retreated underground, leaving new species to develop and dominate the Earth β many of these new species are the descendents of humans who mutated and adapted to the 'new world' and as such are both adapted to the radioactive environment they call home and capable of much of the rational faculties that people are. It's primarily about evolution and change, and how our world can shift around us β and indeed how we can lose that world if we're not careful.
I could go on listing stories, but those are some that I thought might make interesting films in their own way, they're challenging yet they aren't likely to break the bank creatively.
Harlan Ellison is another good example of a writer whose work is interesting at times, granted considering how dark and cynical much of his work is I doubt it'd ever be picked up by a major studio but nevertheless it makes for interesting Sci-Fi.
'I have no Mouth, and I Must Scream' is probably one of his best known pieces. The short story follows a group of survivors in a post apocalyptic world, tortured by an all-powerful super computer as they struggle to survive in the wasteland of a dead Earth which has become little more than a playground for the frustrated and largely insane super computer that now rules the Earth. Despite the setting it's more an exploration of the darker side of humanity than anything, and focuses more on the characters than AM (the super computer). The game explores it a little more, giving each character a dark past and showing them having to confront it, and generally the story could make for an interesting film, especially since it's essentially a very nihilistic story.
Admittedly a lot of these stories, and a lot of the stories that remain unmentioned (the vast majority), have elements that have been touched on in films before β we've seen post-apocalyptic worlds where man is no longer the dominant species, we've seen crazy master computer with incredible power, we've seen films where authoritatively controlled 'perfect' societies are everything (thanks Logan's Run!) but the general point is that there's always more that we could be discussing, there's always more ways that film can challenge what we think and what we know.
The best Sci-Fi comes from two things: the desire to wow and the desire to tackle challenging ideas, there's nothing wrong with explosions and action but if there's no depth, no purpose behind any of that then a film inevitably falls flat. At the moment it feels as though mainstream Sci-Fi is stuck in something of a rut, and until it get's that desire to break the mold and challenge the audience intellectually I don't think we're going to see many big budget Sci-Fi films that do anything other than wow on a superficial level.
So, I joined Flixist about a week or so ago, and have been mulling over what I want to write my first blog here about, and after discarding my initial ideas β the metric system, elephants, how David Hasselhoff gets his hair looking so damned good, I thought maybe it'd be a good idea if I wrote about something film related: so I decided I'd write a few thoughts down about how Prometheus made me feel.
Note before hand: This isn't going to be a review of any kind, if anything it's more an excuse to springboard into talking about something that I thinks generally an issue with modern big budget Sci-Fi. So, there's that.
You see, watching Prometheus I felt as though I enjoyed myself, it felt good going to see a decent Sci-Fi movie at the cinema - it looked amazing, the plot held together a lot better than I expected (considering some of Ridley Scott's more recent endeavours), and I really liked a lot of the characters and the actors who played them. But throughout the screening I had this feeling that too much seemed to be happening at any one time, scene after scene passed in quick succession, with a lot of content and story seemingly squeezed into each. It felt crowded.
It wasn't till I left the cinema and started to try and articulate how I felt about the film that these feelings became more concrete: It was a good film but too much went on at any one time for me to really think it was a classic.
Too many themes, too many monsters, too much drama at times. It needed to be simpler β which isn't to say it needed to be easier to understand, just that there needed to be less for you to dig into otherwise the film ends up feeling too crowded β which it did.
I don't think Prometheus is necessarily alone in this either, I feel like a lot of modern Sci-Fi suffers from this β the 'wow' factor that science fiction has, the undiscovered or imaginary aspect that often excites people about Sci-Fi, is used so liberally that it just ends up devaluing what you get β for reference: see the original Star Wars films, then the CGI remasterings; or better yet the originals then the prequels. Gone is the quick flash of exciting Sci-Fi to entice the viewers in and in it's place is just a deluge of visual effects meant to... err... I guess wow you? It's hard to say.
Like a lot of things in life less is often more when it comes to special effects, story, themes; if you do something simple in a good way then that's often better than doing a lot in an alright way. Much of the defining Sci-Fi of the 80's and 90's β the dark, almost nihilistic stuff that often ends up being cited whenever anybody talks about good Sci-Fi was built around this premise: Alien, Aliens, Blade Runner, Terminator. They all relied upon a pretty simple plot with relatively small-scale effects and it worked.
Watching the most recent Terminator film (Salvation, was it?), but actually also watching Terminator 3 back when it initially came out, I had this feeling. Avoiding the fact I didn't much like the 'hero' plot of Salvation, the way it was put together just seemed a shambles β a miss-mash of overly convoluted special effects and scenes that didn't seem to have any reason to exist next to each other other than because somebody thought they looked good and because it cost a lot of money.
TV seems to have gone down a similar route, special effects are no longer meant to just imply a creature or a thing or create the impression of an event but actually totally recreate the event in so much HD that your eyes explode.
In some respects it's not necessarily a bad thing: it's good to wow an audience, and being able to do big effects is a very good tool for that, but it has it's limits. You can often do more with a hand gesture or a simple look than you can with 300 ships exploding at once or a giant pasty alien dude, and a lot of directors seem to have forgotten that.
A good film is often a simple film β it doesn't necessarily mean it's an easy film or an understandable film, it just means you can write the plot down on a napkin in a couple of lines without breaking your brain. And that whole simplicity thing often goes for everything in the film, not just the story, but the themes and the effects.
A creature, an event, a relationship, doesn't necessarily have to be obvious or heavily signposted or pointedly articulated for it to make sense β you need only a look to know that two people are in love, a point of exposition between two characters to know that an earthquake has occurred, or a howl in the distance Followed by a flash of limb to know that something is out there stalking the night. You don't need to show everything.
Film making is often more about the impression of something than actually having it β green-screening in footage of a monster or an event happening before people's eyes, using visual tricks like mirrors or smoke to multiply or distort what people see onscreen, using animatronics and special effects to create a monster when it's really only a plastic dummy.
Good film making, atleast as I see it, should always involve an element of this kind of visual trickery, it should always be about creating an impression of something, rather than giving the viewer everything, because once you've shown the audience everything there's really nothing more you can give them. It's only the promise of more, of knowing everything about the monster we catch glimpses of, or the apocalyptic event that destroyed the Earth, that keeps us coming back for more.
This is kind of what failed for me about Prometheus: I enjoyed it, and I'll enjoy rewatching it quite a few times when it comes out on DVD, but like with a lot of modern big budget Sci-Fi, I do feel it was more about the show than the tricks, which is the real shame.