Friday, December 01, 2006

Medieval Dead

Over on new blog No Fear of the Future, Chris Nakashima-Brown uses Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia as springboard for a nearly-incomprehensible-in-its-hippitude essay which asks the question "Is the idea of Utopia rendered completely frivolous in a world that has made the cyberpunk dystopia so completely real? In a world where the pragmatic inevitability of market capitalism seems to have proven the inherent truths of its basic assumptions about the innate self-interest at the core of human nature?"

C N-B laments that Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy was the last compelling vision of utopian SF in relatively recent times, and that one has to look "back further for the rest: Aldiss, LeGuin, Van Vogt, Stapledon, Dick." (I can, I hope, be forgiven for pausing to add Zebrowski to that list, as his 1979 novel Macrolife is still unsurpassed in its unique take on viable utopias).

Meanwhile, my friend Paul Wargelin points me towards an article by Jason Silverman of Wired lamenting the lack of series SF cinema. "Hollywood Eats Sci-Fi's Brains," keys of the recent box office failure of Darren Aronofksy's The Fountain, which cost $35 milllion to make and earned a whopping $5million over the extended Thanksgiving weekend, to ask why Hollywood has stopped making series sf. Drawing on opinions of Hollywood insiders, Silverman diagnoses the problem as being a combination of the fact that SF films are always hit-or-miss, never a "slam-dunk" - with the fact that the budgets necessary create a barrier for entry. As Gordon Paddison, New Line Cinema's executive vice president of new media and marketing, says, "You have to put a certain level of budget into these films. You have to swing for the fences, otherwise you just aren't in the game at all."

This perspective seems to me one likely to date fast, as we see an increased democratization of the tools necessary to produce special effects. A more relevant question is found in Silverman's closing paragraph, where Paddison asks, ""The Gene Roddenberry form of sci-fi was the accepted template for years and years, the vision of what the future was to be for many, many people. Then it evolved into the horror sequences of Alien. So what is it now? What are we and our children fantasizing about?"

I don't know, but I suspect, as Silverman comes just short of hinting, that a good place to look for clues might be on YouTube.

Meanwhile, I wonder why no one ever thinks to suggest that the reason a film like The Fountain failed at the box office was not because of the subject matter, but because the trailer looked completely uninspiring and failed utterly to suggest a compelling reason to see the film. The other recent Hugh Jackman vehicle, The Prestige,which exited my local theaters to make room for The Fountain, while by no means a blockbuster, faired considerably better and was a very smart, very demanding film.

Hollywood has a very bad habit of blaming the genre or the setting when they should be blaming the script or the directing. I've just seen the trailer for Eragon, and am significantly underwhelmed. I imagine the legions of fans devoted to the book is enough for them to get their money's worth out of it anyway, but supposing that the film tanked at the box office, or, more realistically, simply underperformed. Then all those producers currently in development on adaptations of books by George R R Martin and Terry Brooks and whatever other fantasies were greenlit immediately following the success of The Lord of the Rings beware. The men in suites will look at Eragon's failure and proclaim that fantasy is dead, without ever once considering that maybe John Malkovich is a poor substitute for Ian McKellen and that cheaply CGI'd Dragons are no match for the decade plus of painstaking, loving, obsession that went into bringing Tolkien to the screen. But why should they when an easy excuse is close at hand?

22 comments:

hutch said...

A lot of people I know who've seen the British trailer for `The Fountain' say it sucks, and I have to agree, although they're the ones who were also put off by the trailer for `Casino Royale,' which I understand is a pretty good film. Personally I stopped paying attention to trailers around the time of Tim Burton's `Batman,' which I thought had a dreadful one.

Dianora said...

You know Paul?? Christ, it's a small freakin' world. Is that because of Penguin, or aside from Penguin?

Lou Anders said...

Hi Hutch - I agree that trailers are often poor representatives of their films. I think the film Strange Days bombed at the boxoffice because of its trailer, because it came out on the heels of Johnny Pneumonic, and it utterly failed to communicate the action componet of the film. But the Fountain trailer also has the feel of a small film made on the cheap and showing you their best (and only) shots. I am very curious to see it, if only to see whether I think its failure is deserved or not.

Re: Paul - well, it's a large virtual world, but Paul and I email.

Tim Akers said...

In your interview with Shaun, you mentioned that Hollywood was in the business of not making movies. So yeah, I hate it when something that is in the vein of movies I want to see tanks, because I know that's all it takes to scare away Hollywood for a couple years. Case in point: Titan AE. I wanted that movie to be good, because I wanted the theaters to be full of high budget animated science fiction goodness. It wasn't, they aren't, and it pissed me off.

paul wargelin said...

I've seen less than a dozen films in theaters this year, which has to be some kind of record for me, but the trailers have been uninspiring and the few blockbusters I have seen this year--Superman Returns and X-Men III--have been disappointing.

Dystopian SF may have supplanted Gene Roddenberry's utopian visions (and even Trek hasn't been immune from it, at least visually, as seen in the last TNG film Nemesis), but Hollywood can only carbon copy Alien/Blade Runner scenarios for so long. For every Matrix, Equilibrium, and Pitch Black, we've got Event Horizon, Supernova, Ultraviolet, the Matrix sequels, and the latter Alien sequels.

Most of these dystopian films may have been visually influenced by Blade Runner, but they're being produced with action sequences to bring in Star Wars audiences.

I did see and enjoy A Scanner Darkly and wanted to see Renaissance, but that was in and out of theaters before I even realized it. And I was curious about The Fountain, but it looks like that will disappear quickly too.

I still haven't seen The Prestige (or The Illusionist), but I enjoyed Christopher Priest's book and will eventually see it.

Re: Eragon. When I first saw Jeremy Irons in this trailer with CGI dragons, my first thought was "They made a sequel to Dungeons and Dragons?" Considering the failure of such recent CGI-dragonfests as D&D and Reign of Fire (anyone know how well Dragonheart did?), I'm guessing that the producers are indeed hoping to jump on the Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings bandwagon. Will it be another Harry, or will it be another Series of Unfortunate Events?

Re: Animated SF. I also wanted to enjoy Titan A.E., and Final Fantasy for that matter, but intelligent animated SF seems to be only produced by Japan.

Dianora--you have me at a disadvantage. You know who I am from Penguin, but I don't know who you are.

Lou Anders said...

Tim, you are absolutely correct. For some strange reason, projects succeed or fail based on the failure of like projects - even unlike projects that are connected by tenuous means. Projects can get shelved because, in preproduction, before anyone is signed, they have a certain actor in mind and then that actor has a flop. Rather than pick another actor - they say, "oh well, that's it."

Paul - I love your list of Alien/Blade Runner clones. I thought Event Horizon, which was dreadful, was hysterical in the way it patched its story together from Aliens, Hellraiser and 2001. Meanwhile, you've noticed that Star Trek: First Contact and Aliens have the same opening right? But I LOVED LOVED LOVED the nonesensical Fifth Element, simply because it didn't look like all the drab Giger-esque films it came out amid.

Paul Wargelin said...

Lou,

I love The Fifth Element too. I always describe it as Star Trek on acid. :-)

That's funny, I didn't even make the connection between the opening of First Contact and Aliens, but now that you mention it...

In a similar vein, when I was in high school, our film teacher pointed out that Aliens is essentially a remake of Them.

Tim Akers said...

Yeah, I'm a fan of 5th Element, though I hated the ending. c.f. Firefly/Serenity for the kind of movie/series I'd like to see Hollywood make, but they won't because people didn't buy in. Though, as has been discussed elsewhere, BSG is bringing the love.

Sort of an economics issue, but BSG is on extended cable around here. Could something like that survive contact with the mainstream, broadcast market, and the requisite muddling by men in suits?

Lou Anders said...

Paul - Event Horizon opens the same way. In fact, I'd argue one of the main problems with that film is that it stole the set up - we open on person with actual encounter with alien threat having a nightmare, followed by their getting recruited by their organization to go back, at which point they are sent with a bunch of roughnecks who don't respect their abilities/told to sit out of the fight, and in the end its all up to them - but failed to follow it through, so Sam Neil is supposed to be the good guy but then goes all possessed and evil.

Tim - do you watch Heroes? That's network.

Tim Akers said...

As I was writing that, I thought...Well, there's Heroes...

Paul Wargelin said...

Lou,

I haven't seen Event Horizon since I saw it in the theater. You've inspired me to rewatch it, just for the silliness value.

NBC/Universal owns SF Channel, so between Heroes and BSG, they've got two of the top rated shows on network and extended cable. And if I'm not mistaken, NBC ran a three-hour version of the original two-part mini-series of BSG. I wonder how well that did in the ratings and whether or not NBC would be tempted to broadcast more of it.

Beyond that, has there been a significant--or successful--SF show that has run on the major networks (not counting The X-Files on FOX) since the original Star Trek lasting more than one season? B5, Andromeda, Stargate SG-1, Farscape, and the other Trek shows have all been either syndicated or on cable channels.

Lou Anders said...

Well, of all the things I thought I might inspire you to do, this would be my least likely pick.

Meanwhile, yes, this is why Doctor Who's success in the UK and worldwide actually dwarf's BSGs and one reason why folks should stop bitching about its very deserving Hugo nominations. But I think we are still in the era of SF that doesnt look like SF as far as networks are concerned. I predict this will change soon(ish).

paul wargelin said...

Don't worry Lou, you've also inspired me to read Pyr's books. :-)

Lou Anders said...

I guess it balances out then.

Seriously, though, you'll see how the opening of EVENT HORIZON is a total theft of the opening of ALIENS. But instead of showing the marines that the civilian along for the ride can kill bugs as well as anyone, Sam goes all Pinheady and we switch protagonists. Weird, weird storytelling by committee I think.

Justin Weinberger said...

RE: Network SF series -- Lost made it past the first season on ABC. As long as we're on Mr. JJ Abrams, there's Alias, but I hesitate to assign the ~spy-fi series any significance even though it made the cut at ABC for 5 seasons.

Of course, Cameron's Dark Angel went 2 seasons and Fox canned it in favor of Firefly which got eaten by its budget, ouroborotically. Lamentable.

RE: Doctor Who -- Anyone who can review 'Torchwood', the spinoff, yet? Or perhaps know a way to procure it in the US?

Lou Anders said...

You know, I find Stargate unwatchably silly, but the fact that its lasted so so long means it ranks. Meanwhile, for some reason, I find that while I'm wild about Who, I'm totally uninterested in Torchwood. I think they beat it to death in references during season two, and it made me hate it before it aired. But folks I know who have been watching it are almost universally underwelmed. Of course, no show should be judged before it finds its feet.

hutch said...

I'm rather enjoying Torchwood, although I know a lot of people who hate it. It's been a bit uneven so far, and a bit too willing to go for cheap shocks just to qualify for its `adult' tag, but I like it.

Ted said...

Lou, the fact that part of your criticism of The Fountain's trailer is that it looks like "a small film made on the cheap," and that part of your criticism of Eragon's trailer is that it contains "cheaply CGI'd Dragons," seems to support Silverman's assertion that budget is a barrier to entry for genre films. I know those aren't your only problems with those trailers, but look at what you're saying: if fantasy films require a "decade plus of painstaking, loving, obsession," then they really aren't a good investment for Hollywood.

Gursky said...

I thought the fact that our boy Sam goes a bit pinhead brittle was one of the stranger points of Event Horizon, too, and one of the most compelling. Written by committee or not, it was different. And maybe it was just the mood I was in at the time, but somehow that movie managed to scare me in ways that most entries to the genre never have. I still can't see him in any other role and not be a little creeped out, because the other characters never seem to realize just how evil he truly is.

Paul Wargelin said...

When I think of Sam Neill in crazy mode, I think of him eating popcorn and laughing maniacally at the screen in John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness.

Lou Anders said...

Ted,
I'm not necessarily contradicting Silverman, though that's not my personal barrier - I love Gattica, Primer, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The problem with the Fountain trailer for me was not one of budget, but the lack of a compelling draw/hook in what they did show. Cinema can be well-made regardless of budget.

Gursky - the problem is that Sam Neill is not "completely evil" - they've just plugged in "evil" from some other script. In a few minutes, they will plug in pieces of 2001. Seriously, that's one of the worst films I've ever seen!

hutch said...

Sorry, Lou, but I didn't think `Event Horizon' was that bad. It could have used a stronger editorial hand on the reins at the writing stage, but I thought it was efficient enough. Certainly it was one of the loudest films I ever watched, although the press screening of `Serenity' I went to ran it a close second after one of my colleagues asked the projectionist to `turn it up to eleven, mate.'