Wednesday, December 30, 2009

80s SF/Horror special part 2: The Thing (1982)

Three years after Alien (1979) hit the movie world, horror director John Carpenter produced his own version of the SF/Horror formula. The Thing (1982) is based on a short science fiction story by John W. Campbell, Jr. about a shapeshifting alien and Carpenter incorporated lots of elements out of Alien to create a most horrific movie. Of all the movies that the SF and Horror marriage produced, this is perhaps my favourite.

There are many similarities between The Thing and Alien. I almost consider them brothers. Instead of a bushy Sigourney Weaver we have Carpenter’s favourite hero, a bushy Kurt Russell. The Alien tagline runs: In space no-one can hear you scream. Well, the same goes for Antarctica. Cut the communications and you are as lost in an empty and hostile place as you are in space. The movie opens with a powerful scene of a helicopter over the endless white plains of Antarctica.

As with the alien in Alien, the thing in The Thing is created with award winning artwork and special effects. After thirty years, the disgusting creature looks more real than todays computer generated monsters, although the models move a bit awkward. An important part of the movie is the strong mood of paranoia and the desolate, bleak landscape of snow. It has a good pace and is very entertaining. The Thing is timeless.

IMDB: The Thing

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

80s SF/Horror special part 1: Alien (1979)

When audiences sat down to watch Alien in 1979, they expected another space adventure of the likes of Star Wars (1977, only two years earlier). Alien took the dirty-looking spaceship idea of Star Wars and put it in an unexpected horror environment that scared the crap out of the viewers. A new thing was born: the next generation of the potent SF/horror mix. Today, thirty years later, Alien has become a hollywood classic. Too well known to be a cult movie, yet not exactly a part of the canon of respected good movies. How did it hold up in those thirty years?

There is the usual excuse for old movies (and Alien is an old movie by now) that they “were new at the time” and thus excused for shortcomings. Well, one obvious shortcoming is that Alien is a terribly slow movie. Even for the audience of 1979 it must have been slow. It takes half an hour for the movie to get started, and the final part is not much more than people searching dark rooms and faintly lit corridors step by cautious step. Yet the middle part is pure greatness! It is the foundation on which all the future sequels and spin-offs are based on.

Director Ridley Scott increases the tension step by step by step in a series of brilliant scenes:
1. The dark windy planet & the alien spacecraft
2. The eggs
3. The facehugger (great scary idea)
4. The acid blood
5. The birth of the baby alien (chestburster classic)
6. The full grown alien (a great and unique design by Swiss artist H. R. Giger)
7. The robot (very organic robot. A cool new idea)

It might be a step by step movie, but every step is made with deliberation, amazing artwork and set pieces and great shots. With so many iconic scenes and a great atmosphere, the whole movie is a milestone in cinema and I can indeed excuse its slowness.

IMDB: Alien

Monday, December 28, 2009

Book: George Orwell - 1984 (1949)

It is one of the best known books ever written. So many concepts expressed in this book have been copied and used that the very book itself and its title have become symbols. Whenever governments get too powerful or seem to meddle with psychological manipulation, there is someone who stands up and waves a copy of 1984 in their faces. It is the scariest book I have ever read.

The novel is filled with episodes that give you an uncomfortable feeling in your stomach. The Two Minutes Hate is a classic one. Other scenes are more dramatic, such as the vision of the pyramids of the Ministries of Truth, Love, Peace and Plenty that tower over the rest of the city. There are scenes that are a bit comical as well, such as the mandatory morning exercise and Winston’s job as a modifier of documents to change records of the past, but never funny. Instead these scenes have a terrible sadness in them.

Orwell systematically blocks all hope for the reader that the world will ever get better. The fascist state Winston Smith lives in will stay that way forever and the rest of the world is no different. The world exists in a balance that is maintained by three states, which keeps it forever turning. It is a nightmare without end; the future forever ruined. Even the past is lost to memory and destroyed by lies. It makes you want to bury your face in your hands and hide far away. To quote one of Orwell's characters: "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever."

In 1948, when the book was written, totalitarianism was a real fear. Nowadays it is a bit dated in its prophetic power, but it is a story that will never get old. It is immensely powerful and alarming and as a call to freedom it will always remain relevant. Highly Recommended.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Movie: Avatar (2009)

Avatar is a wonderful ride. Much has been said about this movie already. According to many, Avatar is a breakthrough accomplishment in special effects and 3D cinema and I immediately take their word for it. This is one of those movies during which I thought: “this is visually the most beautiful movie I have ever seen” and that happens only every few years. I am sure that a few years from now, there will be movies bigger and better than Avatar in their effects and 3D (even though Avatar has been ridiculously expensive). Avatar is the movie that people will emulate and, before you know it, do better. But! Avatar will be remembered for a long, long time to come, not because of the techniques that have been used, but because just of what has been created with these techniques.

Avatar’s story is solid, but not very remarkable. At times downright predicable. But so were Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. It’s your standard Dances With Wolves or The Last Samurai story, in which a soldier changes sides when he notices that his own people are the baddies, only you don’t see these stories in a science fiction environment often. It is well written and I really started to care about the characters, as it should be done. James Cameron’s greatest achievement is the world he has created. This is escapism at its peak and it makes the 3D version truly stand out. Avatar feels real, as if Cameron truly flew to another world and took his camera with him, until you notice that everything looks bigger and better than on Earth and you remember that you are watching a movie.

The planet Pandora is an exceptionally beautiful creation. It feels like the moist jungle is dripping around you and the big, cute, blue, alien indians (yea that’s right) may look a bit odd but they grow on you and are rightfully the focus of the story. Avatar is not the typical mediocre movie that tries to hide its lack of story behind awesome special effects; it is a great movie that does everything right, aims high and wins. I love it when that happens.

IMDB: Avatar

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Book: Richard Adams - Watership Down (1972)

Author Michael Moorcock once said that if the bulk of American sf could be said to be written by robots, about robots, for robots, then the bulk of English fantasy seems to be written by rabbits, about rabbits and for rabbits. Well, let me tell you this: you don’t know rabbits. Richard Adams did. He spent days and days watching rabbits and he wrote a book about it. And what a book! If there ever was an instant classic, a must-read marvel that screamed originality, it is Watership Down.

You just don’t make this up. A 400 page rabbit-epic with a power to rival the greatest adventure tales ever put in print. The story circles around a small bunch of rabbits, led by the brave Hazel. His psychic brother Fiver gets a vision of bulldozers and the imminent destruction of their hill, and so they decide to leave their warren with a few others in search for a new home. Along the way they have great adventures and encounter danger and temptation at every turn.

Adams gave every rabbit his or her own character and every warren its own way of running things. He gave them their own language, complete with rabbit proverbs, poetry and culture. You would do wrong to think that this is simply a childrens book. It is a book filled with tensions and toward the end, as Hazel’s bunch is threatened by the tyrannical rabbit Woundwort, downright violent. It explores the ways that heroes are made and communities are formed.

Watership Down is one of the great originals and worth anybody’s time.

Movie: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Before this movie got claimed by certain teenage subcultures and main character Jack Skellington became a T-shirt icon, The Nightmare Before Christmas entered the lists of greatest animated movies ever made. Tim Burton’s magical marriage between Halloween and Christmas was put off as weird at first, but claimed a cult following and slowly gathered the praise it deserved.

I guess most people would label this movie as “weird”, but not many would fail to see that a lot of meticulously crafted artwork has gone into it. Burton created a weird kind of beautiful that managed to twist puppets (which are often unintentionally nightmarish, like clowns) into charming dark fun. It is a little blessing to approach darkness with such good cheer.

This is the heart and power of the movie and would have been enough to make it a cult classic, but The Nightmare Before Christmas is an allround spellbinding production with excellent voice acting, an original storyline and great music. Years later, Burton would try to make the same movie twice with Corpse Bride, but The Nightmare Before Christmas is unique and already complete in its vision, as if it sprung as a whole from Burton’s forehead. He may have named his movie a nightmare, but I wish I could have a dream like this.

IMDB: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Movie: Big Fish (2003)

The universe is made of stories, not atoms. Tim Burton surely looks at the universe this way, and Big Fish is his testament to storytelling. I guess we all look at our own lives as stories. We look for connections and threads and construct our own personal story out of it. It partly defines who we are. Now, does this story have to be true? A story does not have to be true to be beautiful. And the legacy of one’s life deserves to be rich and beautiful.

Big Fish is a feast for the eyes and the imagination as Burton uses his magical touch on a series of near-possible storylines. The movie is a tapestry of mythical-themed fables that stay enjoyable and fresh throughout the movie and here and there intertwine. Burton keeps the viewer guessing. Is it all real or pure nonsense? We don’t believe in giants and werewolves, but could they just be exaggerations? Ewan McGregor delivers it all with a fresh smile on his face and a big Alabama accent that is simply made for storytelling.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter if the stories are true or not. It only matters that the tales have beauty. The conclusion of this movie could have been stronger, more emotional, but perhaps it is a testament to the idea of this movie that the other, “made-up” ending told by one of the main characters is more beautiful than the real one. It is all great fun, and quietly touching too.

IMDB: Big Fish