Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Just What the Doctor Ordered - an Elephant in the Bathtub

My wife and I are presently watching the Extended Version of the The Return of the King. We're a bit behind on this, I know, but although we watched the previous two extended films when they debuted, we got married, bought a house, had a child and launched a publishing imprint all in the last few years, so we're a bit behind. But while watching it, I was, of course, again struck by how incredible the world building is. Say what you will about Tolkien - and you can, my wife is really struck on what an elitist society it is, Mr. Frodo - but there is little in literature or cinema to approach this scale of obsessional detail.

Now, just last week I was grooving on the new Essential Guides to the Star Wars universe, which just really make me heartsick. I was a huge fan of the The Next Generation Technical Manual, which was the first tech manual for an SF show that wasn't just some shit thrown together to sell to the idiot core, but was a really fantastically detailed bit of speculation in its own right, and the Star Wars guides are like that seven times over. The heartsickness comes in because while I am an ubergeek for the world building, I always feel that Star Wars is a bit of a rotten apple, with a beautiful skin of books, comics, games, reference manuals etc.. wrapped around an inferior core cinema property. In other words, I wish all that effort went into a better (or better executed) central storyline.

So, watching the final Lord of the Rings, I was wondering/lamenting how long it would be until someone sought to bring a work of SF or F to the screen again with that level of realism, verisimilitude and detail. A long time I thought, given that there are few properties that command that many decades of affection and few studios willing to make such a decade long commitment to a project.

Turns out I was wrong, as this article on SciFi Wire about James Cameron's Avatar attests. Now, while the project isn't based on an existing property, the director commands the clout in this case and the studio will risk the commitment. Now, this sounds exciting, doesn't it? As Cameron says:

"For me, as a lifelong fan of science fiction and action, Avatar is a dream project. We're creating an entire world, a complete ecosystem of phantasmagorical plants and creatures, and a native people with a rich culture and language. The story is both epic and emotional. The two things that make this film even possible are pioneering advances in CG effects and performance capture, as well as my 22-year relationship with Fox, since only with great trust can you operate so close to the cutting edge. I plan to honor that relationship by bringing them a winner. And I have the team to do it, the best team of artists and technicians I've ever been privileged to work with. This one's going to be a grand adventure."

Now, say what you will about Cameron, but he does know real SF (at least enough to appropriate it), his films are smart, his characters well drawn, and he even matches Peter Jackson for obsessive world building, renting a Russian nuclear sub to make sure he had the china dining ware on the Titanic right. And the very next project from the director of the highest grossing film of all time should certainly command a lot of attention. Which means that this film could be very good for SF, both for cinematic SF - Cameron often pioneers new effects and this may open the door to a post-Star Wars era of truly epic SF filmmaking now that Lucas' franchise is done - and for the literary variety as well, as tales of outer space and fully-realized alien cultures are thrust into the brightest of limelights. I've been preaching a pendulum swinging return of SF for a while, as well as a new focus on single planet exploration (drilling down from the vastness of space opera), so I'm pretty heartened to see this. Elephants and bathtubs and all that.

23 comments:

Ted said...

On the other hand, this is exactly the sort of project that reinforces the idea that SF films need to be a high-budget, special-effects-laden productions.

I would love to see a new SF film from Cameron, but I doubt it will increase the chances of thoughtful SF films being made in the near future.

Lou Anders said...

No, I meant this more as a boon to the attentions of the wider world focusing on our genre. On the side of thoughtful films, I haven't seen CHILDREN OF MEN yet, but from what I'm hearing it qualifies - and those sorts - and those scale - of films are also on the rise recently.

justin weinberger said...

Hey Lou,

Don't forget about the OTHER Avatar announced today. M. Night's live action version of the Nickelodeon fantasy.

justin weinberger said...

I'm happy that Cameron's working with Weta (and, Cirque du Soleil!) for the effects, yet I find the concept of 3-D filming...fuddling. I shall take it on faith.

And Ted, yeah -- Cameron's projected budget for Avatar is $200 million, but Cuaron's Children of Men is no lightweight at $72 million (of which it has recouped $12 million in domestic B.O. opening week).

On the scale of thoughtfulness, I have yet to see Children but I'm right there with ya in hoping/expecting to be impressed.

--------------
Finally, for the record:
Cameron said he's sketched out stories for possible second and third installments, but added, "It's not a planned trilogy. This one falls into the category of trilogy of opportunity: If it makes a lot of money, it'll be a trilogy. If it doesn't make any money, we'll forget all about it."

Here's to the highest grossing director of all time!

Lou Anders said...

Hey Justin - I saw mention of the other AVATAR over on Chris Roberson's blog as I was composing this one. And forgot to mention the Weta connection here too. Anyhow, I remain fairly optimistic.

paul wargelin said...

I saw Children of Men this past Sunday and thought it was a phenomenal film. It's a thought-provoking and frightening future scenario as well as an indictment of the present.

The reviewer who called it "Blade Runner for the 21st century" is doing the film a disservice. It's just not an apt comparison, and I believe anyone going to see this film expecting to see a Blade Runner atmosphere is going to be disappointed.

Don't get me wrong. I love Blade Runner, but it's story is entrenched in far-future technologies whereas Children of Men is much more grounded in present-day reality.

I had no idea the film was based on a novel by P.D. James, who I didn't realize wrote any SF.

And in this interview, Alfonso Cuaron states that he had no interest in making an SF film. I get the impression he doesn't consider it one:

http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/archives/online_features/hopeless_future.php

Lou Anders said...

I find this quote interesting:

"We did a little stuff on how the world may look a generation from now, but the goal was still trying to keep that sense of reality. The biggest challenge was making sure the scenario we’re creating is congruent with the premise that the story is taking place twenty years from now. But, at the same time, whatever we did should not alienate you from the sense of today. The core of the film is [about] today. And that’s a conversation I had with the art department. I [said], “I don’t want imagination, I want references and [to know] why that reference [reflects] today’s human perception of reality.” So I [tried] to actually absorb iconography that has been engraved in human consciousness, and that iconography comes from newsreels and media and to create that sense of recognition."

I am not being facetious. I do not fault this impulse, nor the one that causes SF filmmakers to say they "aren't making scifi." We need to reclaim the word and films like this, I suspect, do a good job of doing so.

Odd, because no one looks at the latest Thomas Harris or James Patterson and says, "Mystery/Suspense isn't for me. It's all just crime solving cats and cozies."

justin weinberger said...

The article touches on a discussion that calls traditional assumptions about auctorial ownership into question, as well, I think. Canon states that Cuaron, as director, is auteur -- and wanted to tell the story that was in his head, not in James's novel. Scrapped the first script, never read the book; he did everything he could to reinforce the traditional idea that the director is God.

Yet, from your quote, Lou, I think he's doing a lot that makes scifi good and keeps it relevent. And if, as it seems to be, the final product is co-opted into the greater pantheon of the SFnal, then who holds the authorship in the reckoning?

paul wargelin said...

"And if, as it seems to be, the final product is co-opted into the greater pantheon of the SFnal, then who holds the authorship in the reckoning?"

An interesting question--one I couldn't begin to answer, but will instead pose additional questions:

Was James's novel renowned in SF circles as a great work prior to the making of this film? If Cuaron's admittedly different take on the source material brings the story recognition as a major landmark in SF film (and maybe even boosts the sales of James's book), shouldn't he get author credit?

On the other hand, would the film exist without the novel?

This is a question that can be posed for Battlestar Galactica as well. Ron Moore gets well-deserved credit for creating intelligent SF television, but what about Glen Larson who created the original concept? Who holds the authorship in this case?

The top fifty SF novels, a list posted by Lou back in November, includes PKD's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Frank Herbert's Dune. The former was adapted into one of the most influential SF films of all time while the latter was adapted into a less-than-spectacular film (as well as a so-so mini-series).

Ridley Scott and David Lynch both take credit for the success and failure of these films. Blade Runner is a different take on PKD's novel, so is Scott (or screenwriter David Peoples) the author? How many people saw Dune expecting a Star Wars-type adventure (as it was marketed at the time) only to be disappointed and wouldn't go near the novel?

If Lynch is blamed as the author of a failed film like Dune and not Herbert for his original concept, then perhaps Scott, Moore, and Cuaron deserve the same status for their successful adaptations.

Lou Anders said...

These are very interesting questions, and Blade Runner was the example springing to mind even before Paul brought it up. Also, while I've not read Christopher Priest's The Prestige, I skimmed the first chapter and suspect it is very different in structure at least from the film. Film is its own medium, and while I applaud faithful adaptations like LotR, films need to stand or fall, be judged or lauded, on their own merits, by their own rules. In fact, often good books make poor films (Dune) while bad books can often make good ones!

Ted said...

We need to reclaim the word and films like this, I suspect, do a good job of doing so.

How so, when the director (and many critics) says it's not a science fiction film?

Most people see so little in common between Terminator and Children of Men that they don't see the point in using the same term to refer to both. And given that films like Terminator (and Avatar) have a much higher profile, that's where the term is likely to stick.

Odd, because no one looks at the latest Thomas Harris or James Patterson and says, "Mystery/Suspense isn't for me. It's all just crime solving cats and cozies."

The highest-profile mystery/suspense novels aren't the ones about crime-solving cats. A closer analogy would be recommending a quiet, non-violent novel, and having a person say, "Mystery/suspense isn't for me; it's all about hunting super-genius serial killers."

justin weinberger said...

RE: Paul -- All credit to those gents for their adaptations, absolutely. The adage that the director is God is native to an industry where every project is hugely collaborative. However, I think that credit and authorship can be conflated without cause to be. Analagous to the way a sitting President is credited/blamed for everything that happens on his watch.

On the same note, I don't think that the movie Children and the book Children are two halves of the same story, nor BSG, nor Blade Runner, et al. The sane thing, to me, is to treat them as two distinct works that share a plot (not even that, sometimes).

Yet, when a book with quality "X" is filtered through a director who eschews "X" for a "Y" that strikes his finely attuned ear as more compelling, what is an observer to think when a lot of the people who've seen the product are saying, "Wow, what a great example of high quality 'X'."

Lou Anders said...

Yet, when a book with quality "X" is filtered through a director who eschews "X" for a "Y" that strikes his finely attuned ear as more compelling, what is an observer to think when a lot of the people who've seen the product are saying, "Wow, what a great example of high quality 'X'."

Which is why Children of Men is a science fiction film, whether the director or some critics label it as such or not. A science fiction film is what the majority of people will relate to it as.

Ted said...

A science fiction film is what the majority of people will relate to it as.

I hope you're right.

Lou Anders said...

Well, I first heard about the film in the USA Today article "Science Fiction Gets Real" where it was introduced as unequivovably SF:

http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2006-07-23-comic-con-main_x.htm

"This isn't science-fiction-cum-fantasy, like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. This is the stuff of H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury: a glimpse at what's to come if we don't tend to the planet, keep an eye on technology and treat beings from other worlds with a little respect."

Certainly a google search for "Children of Men Science Fiction" returns plenty of discussions treating it as such, as well as the label "Science Fiction" applied on Amazon, Yahoo Movies, etc... Even those who say it isn't are invoking the label to dispute it.

paul wargelin said...

"Film is its own medium, and while I applaud faithful adaptations like LotR, films need to stand or fall, be judged or lauded, on their own merits, by their own rules. In fact, often good books make poor films (Dune) while bad books can often make good ones!"

I agree. And I wish there would be more good films adapted from bad books and good remakes of bad films--both bad books and bad films having potential of course. :-)

"On the same note, I don't think that the movie Children and the book Children are two halves of the same story, nor BSG, nor Blade Runner, et al. The sane thing, to me, is to treat them as two distinct works that share a plot (not even that, sometimes)."

I agree with this too. But there are very vocal fans of films, books, and comic book characters who take offense at any deviation from their personal perception of the work in question being adapted.

The popular buzz-word for some adaptions today is "reimagining." I've read articles about BSG, Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead featuring this word as if they were the first creators to ever rework someone else's story idea.

What was West Side Story if not a "reimagining" of Romeo & Juliet or Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood as Macbeth set in feudal Japan?

Kurosawa took Dashiell Hammet's novel Red Harvest as the template for Yojimbo, which then inspired Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, and Walter Hill's Last Man Standing.

JMS's Spider-Man is not Stan Lee's, anymore than Grant Morrison's Batman is Bob Kane's.

But aren't they all valid interpretations that, as Lou said, should be judged on their own merits?

Lou Anders said...

The only criteria that matters is whether or not they are good. Subjective of course.

I do wonder, and I'm typing faster than I think here, if certain works - like LotR - don't accrue enough status/standing to demand faithful adaptations over reimaging where others don't?

justin weinberger said...

But aren't they all valid interpretations that, as Lou said, should be judged on their own merits?

Indeed, they should or we're all doomed.

[Georges Polti's thirty-six attendant situations linked here.]

Sean Williams said...

"Was James's novel renowned in SF circles as a great work prior to the making of this film?"

Far from it. It was regarded as particularly inept both as a work of fiction AND a work of SF. The kind of dystopian turn someone who had never read SF in their life would write, thinking it a great idea without realising it had all been done before, many times over.

As a movie it's both a great movie and great SF. My favourite film of 2006, as a matter of fact. Everyone should see it. And no, it's nothing like Bladerunner.

The last SF movie to so interest the mainstream crowd, without warning them that it was in fact SF, was "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind". IMHO, anyway.

Lou Anders said...

Yes, Eternal Sunshine keeps running through my mind all through this discussion.

Ted said...

I do wonder, and I'm typing faster than I think here, if certain works - like LotR - don't accrue enough status/standing to demand faithful adaptations over reimaging where others don't?

You've got two "don't"'s there, and one should probably be a "do."

I suppose the question the filmmakers might ask themselves is, "how much will it matter if fans of the novel hate the movie because it's not a faithful adaptation?" For LotR and Harry Potter, it matters a lot. For most other novels, it doesn't matter at all.

A.R.Yngve said...

I think ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF... was brilliant and original, and its reputation will likely grow in time to become a "classic".

As for big budgets... may I remind you that James Cameron's breakthrough hit, THE TERMINATOR, was a low-budget movie. (Then again, post-apocalyptic scenery IS much cheaper to build than alien landscapes.)

justin weinberger said...

Good point, a.r. -- yet, not for nothing...the rights to Terminator were sold by Cameron for $1.00. Your point is well taken, but T1 was also a labor of love for a first-time director.

In counterpoint to this, other pictures of the time: A New Hope (1977) was produced for $11 million, Alien (1979) the same. Triple those to rough out inflation.

To come full circle, tripling $28 million Blade Runner (1982) puts it in the same category as Children of Men.