Archive for Commentary

Danny Boyle’s understated masterpiece, Slumdog Millionaire, has now garnered its fair share of accolades after sweeping last night’s Oscars.  This was a well-deserved pat on the back for one of the most influential and undervalued directors of recent years; creator of the fascinating Sunshine, the frightening and original 28 Days Later, and the classic and original Trainspotting.  Boyle’s genius is in his ability to imagine what has become ordinary in a new and original light, and his genius has finally been recognized by mainstream American cinema.

Take, for example, his film 28 Days Later.  At the time that this film went into production, films featuring zombies in pursuit of human prey had fallen out of favor.  Romero’s Dawn of the Dead series, while frightening and chilling in a way, depicted slow, stumbling and rather stupid zombies dragging their way after much quicker and smarter humans.  28 Days Later, which is arguably one of the most frightening zombie films ever created, re-imagined the zombie threat into something much more visceral.  One critic I read described the zombies in the film as “meat-seeking missiles” which is both descriptive and grotesque but echoes my point.

Sunshine was another case in point.  Science fiction films have become a mainstay of modern cinema, but such films are bloated with action and computer-generated special effects.  Enter Boyle.  Instead of CG, Boyle uses a projected image of the Sun to stunning effect, as in one scene a moon-sized Mercury slides across the violent surface of the star with all the crew in attendance.  The film is visually stunning, and recalls visuals from 2001 and Alien.  This excellent movie was made for a pittance in modern day cinema, $20 million, and it looks like a movie costing five times as much.

Slumdog Millionaire is a brilliant film.  It is both tragic and uplifting, beautiful and grotesque, filled with love and hate.  It is the inter-meshing of opposites in this film that give it its raw narrative power.  In the end, the audience is driven almost to the point of hysteria hoping that the young lead will win his heart’s desire.  And this is an independent film, made without notable CG effects, for a pittance. . . .

My sincere hope is that the movie industry will use Slumdog as a rallying cry to make necessary changes in the manner by which new films are made.  If such a fantastic film can be made for such a small amount of money and still be ridiculously profitable, perhaps more of the movie industry’s money should be directed toward simpler efforts.  We don’t need Die Hard 5; He’s Really Pissed Off Now, we need more independent films featuring actors we’ve never heard of, stories we’ve never seen, in places we are unfamiliar with.

Long live the indies!

blade runner

Blade Runner is arguably the most influential science fiction movie of the 1980’s. Unlike Star Wars, which was the most influential sci-fi movie of the 1970’s, Blade Runner was a thinking person’s version of sci-fi, a sort of 2001; A Space Odyssey for the 80’s.

Certain movies seem to push the envelop farther than it had ever been pushed before. These movies are revolutionary because they re-define the possible, stretching the expectations of moviegoers rather than limply satisfying them.

I can still remember my reaction to the movie, 2001; A Space Odyssey. I was 9 or 10 years old, and I was sitting in the balcony of the Ogden on Colfax in Denver, Colorado when it used to be a movie theater.

The Ogden was running a series of evening double features, including several of the Planet of the Apes films, Dr. Strangelove, and other less notables. Despite my youth, I was somehow able to remain upright and alert for the entire movie. This is not really meant as a criticism of the film, rather a statement about my own maturity.

I can remember the amazement that I felt watching the (virtually) seamless effects, stunning in their complexity and accuracy despite the fact that they were created before the lunar landings. In essence, my perception of what was possible in film was fundamentally changed on that day–my understanding and expectations shifted somehow.

Despite the ubiquitous nature of the term and its application and mis-application to almost every realm of human endeavor (including business, which appropriates every cool expression as its own), I had undergone a fundamental paradigm shift in my thinking.

Blade Runner is the quintessential paradigm-shifting film. Like 2001, it does so by a combination of effects, a depth and intelligence in both its writing and direction, and by presenting a story unlike any seen before.

Those readers who grew up in the 1990’s following Blade Runner’s debut may be unaware of the influence that the movie had and has on modern culture, and may be skeptical of this claim. However, to make my point, let me provide a few examples.

First, the movie helped to bring a hitherto unknown science fiction author, Phillip K. Dick, to light. PKD has provided the foundation for a string of popular science fiction movies, including (in no particular order); Minority Report, Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, Imposter, Screamers, Total Recall, Next, and several others. Although Blade Runner was bastardized (some, including me, would say markedly improved) from the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the movie helped to solidify PKD’s pre-eminent status as the most influential science fiction writer of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.

Second, the movie introduced a key concept that would become increasingly important in movies, that of the intelligent android that was virtually indistinguishable from the humans who created it. The newest version of the series, Battlestar Galactica (reviewed elsewhere in this blog) has one of the main plot elements of the story the fact that 13 of the cylon models are almost indistinguishable from the humans that they seek to destroy.

This plot device is also at the root of one of the most controversial questions that has had Blade Runner “scholars” arguing for several years; the question of whether Deckard is or is not actually a replicant himself. Purists, such as myself, say no. Revisionists point to the newer releases of the film, such as the first “Directors Cut” which appears to show a tapeto-retinal sheen (the medical term for the yellow reflection seen in the back of the eyes of cats and some birds) in Deckard’s eyes near the end of the film.

Thirdly, Blade Runner introduced a different sort of atmosphere to the science fiction film. Instead of the clean, white and gray sets of the Star Wars universe, the world of Blade Runner was foreign, dirty, hazy and filled with darkly clouded skies and constant rain. In short, the earth of the future was not a very hospitable place, and this atmosphere provided much of the tension, confusion and fear contained within the film. In short, Blade Runner was one of the first science fiction films to present a future world that was a dystopia, rather than a utopia.

Blade Runner was also, if interviews with Harrision Ford and Ridley Scott are to be believed, a VERY difficulty movie to make. Difficult, perhaps, because nothing like it had ever been done before. As such, there was no way to say to the cast, “I want this scene to look like Casablanca, only better,” or “you know, like the chariot race in Ben-Hur. . . .”

The newest version of the film, titled “The Directors Cut” is actually supposed to be a Director’s Cut of the film. This is in contrast to the previous “Director’s Cut” which was simply the version of the film that was screen tested to audiences prior to the inclusion of Harrison Ford’s distracted voice-over and the elimination of the infamous “unicorn scene.” I am looking forward to viewing this new release. Although I am not certain that the original can be substantively improved upon, I look forward to it anyway.

Original Blade Runner, ***1/2 Jessicas out of four. Directors Cut (first) ***1/2 Jessicas out of four.

I have been a connoisseur of science fiction for many years. As a result of this fixation, I have been able to observe closely the transitions in movie special effects over the last 30 years. I have come to believe that while special effects are an essential part of every movie, they can be and often are overused.

I grew up in an era when special effects were complicated and expensive. When the original Star Wars was created, the special effects team had to literally invent an entirely new way of filming special effects with a motor-driven camera that could smoothly fly through the small props that were the surface of the Death Star. This technique, combined with refinements on the older blue-screen and stop-motion systems, allowed special effects wizard John Dykstra to help create a movie unlike any other.

This robust collection of techniques became the standard for the following 10 years of movie-making, producing such classics as; Tron, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Clash of the Titans, and the television show Battlestar Galactica.

Two of the biggest limitations of these techniques were time and money. Each effect-laden sequence took many hours of pre-, during and post-production by a team of special effects workers. When the average movie cost between 7 and 30 million to produce, the number of effects that a filmmaker could include in a movie was small.

There were still excesses, however. One new effect that was tried with only limited success during this period was 3-D movie making. The b-movie Jaws 3-D is an example of this. In that movie, the special effects team took every opportunity to show the audience how great 3-D movies were. Thus the screen was variously filled with limbs floating in mid air, aircraft swooping past, and sharks lunging toward the camera. I remember one particularly obnoxious scene transition where the camera slowly zoomed in upon the corner of a Japanese tea-house roof, allowing the dragon-styled edge to “poke out of the screen.” In truth, this overuse of the effect ruined it, by making the audience aware of the effect, and in essence, destroying any suspension of disbelief.

Suspension of disbelief was again possible, however, with the advent of computer-generated effects. This transition was heralded by movies such as The Last Starfighter but is exemplified by the movie Jurassic Park. I can still remember thinking “oh my God,” during the sequence with the rabid velociraptors attacking the kids in a cafeteria. The computer-generated effects seemed almost seamless in execution, and I, like many others, had the sudden feeling that a fundamental paradigm shift in movie making had occurred.

Fast-forward to the present day.

The year is now 2007, and the last several years have been filled with computer-generated effects ranging from fantastic to way over-the-top. Movies such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy have pushed the boundaries of what is possible with movie effects, and it is truly amazing. However, to quote the script from Spider Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Just because you can have an F-35 fighter in VTOL configuration flying around a city in the finale of your movie, doesn’t mean that you SHOULD (with an obvious nod to this Summer’s Live Free or Die Hard).

A simple rule of thumb; if the audience can tell that it is a special effect, it should probably not be used.

As an example of special effects used well, watch Children of Men again. There are several sequences in that movie that have embedded seamless effects in the storyline. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think they were real and that you were watching documentary footage, rather than special effects. That is the power available to today’s filmmakers.

I encourage all filmmakers to keep in mind that special effects exist to help the plot and improve the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. If the effect draws attention to itself as an effect, it has not accomplished either of these goals.


Star Wars on TV???

STAR WARS on TV? Oh-No-He-Did-Unt!!!

I was shocked and dismayed to hear that George Lucas, the creative mastermind behind the original Star Wars trilogy who then massacred the follow-up trilogy by deciding to direct them himself, has committed yet another galactic-size gaffe.

In his infinite wisdom, the man who made us sit through an extra hour of The Phantom Menace to glorify both Jar-Jar and the Gungans, has decided to create a made-for-tv series based on the Star Wars universe.

Don’t get me wrong, the new Battlestar Galactica rocked my world and gave me new hope for television as a medium for science fiction. However, the likelihood of a made-for-tv Star Wars containing Tricia Helfer as a sultry, deceptive jedi knight; or of the wanton massacre of millions of humans by violent stormtroopers is relatively slim (disregarding the fact that they can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a blaster).

Instead, I expect shows demonstrating the gustatory habits of the Gungans at great length, the (special) education of Jar-Jar Binks as he moves from resident idiot to senator, and the long, arduous courtship of a couple of Ewoks on Endor. Edgy stuff.

Let’s face it George, you are a BRILLIANT idea guy who can’t direct himself out of a F**cking paper bag. Remember the lessons learned during the first Star Wars triology. The best movie of the three was the brilliant Empire Strikes Back, which was directed by Irvin Kershner.

Even without seeing it, I expect the series to need significant Jessica support to even be tolerable. I’m guessing a 1/2 Jessica out of four on a generous day. . . .

George, I’m pleading with you, please leave my childhood Star Wars alone.  You have lost all touch with the universe of Skywalkers and Wookies, and each attempt to capitalize on the series causes me very real physical pain.