Back in the February, 1952 issue of Galaxy, Robert Heinlein set down some predictions for the ensuing 48 years. He revisited them in a 1966 collection, but died before he could see them come true. (Or, fail, in some cases.) Now, sixty years after he wrote them… let’s see how accurate they are. At predicting the world of 2012, much less the world of 2000.
Long-ass post going over list of 19 predictions after the bump.
In the wake of Ridley Scott’s new film, Prometheus, science-fiction fans have been quick to point out the many, varied ways in which science is butchered for the sake of plot stupidity. As in, ignoring not just Einstein but Newtonian physics, idiotic scientists, B-movie style mindless alien monsters, and one of those laughable scenes where something big and inanimate (a spaceship) chases a character (Charlize Theron) who runs along its path instead of going sideways. After it drops straight out of the sky, instead of, y’know, falling in an arc, like Newton’s laws of inertia proscribe. (Also in last link, the CEO going on away missions was an implausibility Star Trek got rid of in its second series.)
Needless to say, the criticism has been bagging on the movie’s scientific inaccuracy. And more often than not, someone will point out that the film is science fiction, emphasizing the FICTION part. Well… yes and no.
Science fiction has always had an elitist edge about it, holding the genre and its components to the highest standard. (Sad truth, it can be really blatant elitism with some authors/historians, though for most it’s more about adhering to science fact.) I’d say that that rigorous elitism, that staying true to science, is what makes science fiction. It’s why people derisively referred to film, TV, and other visual media as “Sci-Fi” instead of science fiction—because of its lower scientific rigor, considering it more low-brow entertainment, and later, because the media referred to it as Sci-Fi.
The genre’s founder, Hugo Gernsback, was an enthusiastic immigrant engineer; in his Amazing Stories magazine, he promoted didactic “scientifiction” designed to educate as well as entertain, full of technocrats emerging from their ivory-tower meritocracy to dispense scientific wisdom and technological inventions to the masses… while fighting off bug-eye-monsters and protecting nearby comely young ladies.
The man who formed science fiction as we know it today was John W. Campbell; his idea for SF was to write what popular fiction of the 2500s would be like; he revolutionized the genre, moving it away from Westerns with their horses traded in for spaceships and sixguns replaced by blasters, and away from the didacticism of Gernsback. He was also something of an egotistical blowhard. Read any of his introductions to Analog short-story collections and you’ll see him arguing that SF is the hardest genre to write in because it has to adhere to science as we know it, yet say something meaningful about the human condition. You’ll hear him say that Science Fiction is the greatest genre, because it is every genre, or hear the glories of prophetic science fiction—the fans of one of Campbell’s best-remembered authors, Robert Heinlein, are quick to point out Heinlein’s successive “prophecies” compared to his contemporaries.
Heck, the entire genre from the mid-40s to the early ’60s was heavy into the benefits of science—glorious new devices, utopian futures, with brilliant super-scientists leading us ever onward.
True, the ’60s and ’70s saw SF turning away from Campbell’s mold—the rise of Soft Science Fiction, focusing on the soft science: anthropological science fiction, social science fiction. Authors like Delany and Zelazny and Le Guin and Philip K. Dick asked deep, biting questions about the human condition, something that Campbell’s authors often gave only a second glance to. But even in the Soft SF revolution, science as we know it—often the soft sciences, but the “hard” physics and engineering sciences as well—are adhered to. While its protagonists are often no longer scientists, they’re still pretty smart and capable. Yet it was Campbell’s ideals SF returned to: social science fiction merged into the tech-savvy, fight-the-power anarchy of cyberpunk, whose technological focus helped bring about a return to the hard sciences.
(Consider science fiction’s reflection of its eras, progressing views of science pushing back the boundaries of the unknown and impossible. In Gernsback’s lifetime, humanity had introduced cars, airplanes, radio, and dozens of other brilliant technologies which fascinated him; he introduced science fiction in his Modern Electronics magazine, as something for fellow engineer-futurists, who became some of its earliest authors. Campbell’s boom years were after the War, when millions of Americans took advantage of the G.I. Bill to get a college degree, and when scientists praised future glories of the recently split atom. Hence, scientific optimism and super-educated scientists. Soft SF arose during an era of change: the Civil Rights and Women’s Lib movements, anti-conformity and fighting the establishment, hippies, free love, recreational narcotics. What does Prometheus say about the 2010s?)
The point being? Rigorous adherence to known science has always been a cornerstone of the genre; it’s an expectation of many of its adherents, hence why fans hold science fiction films to higher expectations. Get rid of the science, and you can still have science fiction. Thanks to subgenres like “space opera” and “science fantasy,” essentially dumping ground terminology for science-lite science-fiction, fans can still enjoy John Carter and Star Wars by holding them to a less rigorous set of expectations. But without the “science,” you don’t have science fiction: you have fiction. Which is something I don’t think Hollywood has realized, in its bad writing and misguided marketing.
And, more to the point: by promoting shitty writing, dull plotting, impossible science, and idiotic characters, is Prometheus promoting anything beneficial for either science, science fiction, or even film? No. It’s promoting lackluster, bad, and stupid filmmaking under the veneer of pretty visuals and hoping the viewers don’t notice, building high expectations which are rudely squashed. I’m ashamed that it has a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes and didn’t get a fraction of the scathing other, better SF films often get. Not every science fiction film can be Blade Runner or Moon or Inception, but it’d be nice if they tried.
Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s something built into my jaded generation, but I end up assuming everything will be a steaming plate of shit and chips unless it first provides certification of its not-shit nature. In triplicate. Such was my assumption about The Hunger Games; when I first heard about it, my reaction was Didn’t I already read/watch this when it was called Battle Royale? An attempt to reformat the Japanese original’s totalitarian state and teenage gladiatorial death arena for the palate of Western audiences, namely the post-Potter Twilight generation?
Yeah. I should stop assuming things.
The setup is pretty straightforward. Generations after a failed uprising/civil war, the post-apocalyptic remains of North America have restitched themselves under the control of the victorious state of Panem. As punishment for their attempted rebellion, the outlying areas have been divvied up into districts, operating as combination collective farms and industrial plants and kept in a state of suppressed poverty. Once per year, two teenagers—a boy and a girl—are chosen from each district to compete in the Hunger Games: a futuristic deathmatch where these Tributes fight to the death, with the Panem and District citizens watching the ordeal in a rapt fervor. Twenty-four teenagers enter, one teenager leaves.
Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12; when her younger sister is chosen, she volunteers in her stead. A talented archer, she manages to overcome the prejudices weighted against her district through unconventional tactics. See, well-to-do viewers may sponsor the participants with air-dropped gifts, such as medicine or food, and the Games are equal part survival course, combat mission, and showboating for fans. District 12′s other Tribute, a strapping young lad named Peeta, manages to showboat a little too far when he reveals he has a secret crush on Katniss—snap! I wonder what her boyfriend back home thinks about this?
Their drunken advisor—Woody Harrelson, since Woody Harrelson is in freaking everything—urges them to play up this star-crossed lovers angle. Even as they get into the meat of the film—the third act is the Games themselves, after some long and bloated setup—their relationship develops onward, despite the foregone outcome that one of the two will die. The hope is that Katniss will get more sponsors this way… because they’re all guessing Katniss is the only one with a chance, and needs all the help she can get. Their strained relationship ebbs and flows during the game, but by the end, it becomes both the foundation and moving force of the film.
On the one hand, this is a grim futuristic dystopia with a Young Adult love-story that can appeal equally to girls and boys. On a deeper level, this film a scathing satire of our glorious technological future. Contrast the pastoral, 1950s-drab outlying Districts with the glitz and glamor of the Capital City, an amalgam of the stereotypical worst excesses of D.C. insiders and the Hollywood elite, the One Percent turned to eleven—it’s a modern-day Metropolis gone Lord of the Flies.
And note the connection between the Hunger Games and modern society, with their sponsors and mass-media appeal, the vicarious viewers whose emotions are played by this reality TV show gone Thunderdome. It’s in the same vein as Battle Royale, yes, but also treks back through the history of the totalitarian dystopia through Logan’s Run (check out those jumpsuits!), Orwell, and Huxley; it emerged with many similarities, but still has something new and interesting to say.
As the first installment of a trilogy, it has that problem where unique and interesting concepts are introduced but left undeveloped. For example, the Games take place in an artificial, controlled environment, and Gamesmasters are shown to have the ability to drop in new threats to herd, or weed out, the participants… something that’s used about twice. I’ll bet that comes back in the sequels, since it’s a concept that shouldn’t be so woefully underused. There are a number of blatantly obvious questions, many about the setting, that are never answered, and any social criticism is left in the allegorical stage, buried under the surface-level narrative.
An actual film complaint—pretty much my only one—is that is uses the bane of today’s moviegoer… the shaky-cam. Imagine dropping a half-dozen teenagers, a camcorder set to record at full zoom, and some pit bulls into a cement mixer, and you have The Hunger Games‘ fight sequences. The first time it’s used, it can follow its purpose: that would be the initial slaughter when the Tributes are released into the Games, the scrimmage over the supplies left before them. Reflecting the stress and chaos of the moment, with distanced sounds and nervous breathing, it works, without obscuring the action too greatly. And the scenes in the Games have these hand-held, documentary look, which could reflect Katniss’ unsteady nerves or whatever, so there’s already some unsteady-cam action going on.
After that, it does pretty much what shaky-cam cinematography always does: acts as a crutch for inept/lazy directors and/or actors, obscuring the lack of choreography. “You actors, just sprawl around on the ground slapping each other while Bob films from inside a tumble dryer; don’t worry, we’ll fix it in post.” The fight sequences are a muddled mess of close-ups and jerky handheld cameras and bad lighting; as either consolation or an addendum, they’re also way damn short.
The teenage actors all did admirable performances. Josh Hutcherson stumbles occasionally as Peeta, but he gives an all-around solid performance that I can’t complain about. Supporting cast such as Lenny Cravitz, Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland are excellent, and Stanley Tucci hams things up as the Games’ newscaster/reporter. But it’s Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss who steals the show; her ability to emote is sublime, which is in high demand in The Hunger Games, with some emotionally powerful scenes. She also manages to pull off a strong, independent Tomboy who’s still sexy—and since the traditional genre stereotypes are thrown on their heads, with Katniss caretaking an injured Peeta, we have yet another solid female rolemodel from a science-fiction-tinged action movie.
Within The Hunger Games we have an entertaining action film, a Young Adult love story, a dystopia, a cunning social satire, a modern parable for the 99% generation, and probably two or three other things I left out. It’s one of those few films that appeals to teens and adults without compromising—the thematic allegories are vague, not dense or bludgeoning; the action is frenetic, but not the focus; the love story is engaging, not sappy. The effects are slick, and the film’s vision is sweeping and uncompromising, if under-detailed. Its pre-Game half grew long, and the shaky-cam sequences are shit, flaws marring an otherwise solid movie.
I don’t think it’ll go down in history as a landmark film—save for making bank at the box-office—and it might not be the one 2012 movie you remember ten years from now. But The Hunger Games is certainly worth watching.
Okay, I’ve been pretty skeptical about this one, dating back to when I first heard they were remaking it. I mean, the Schwarzenegger one wasn’t brilliant, but it managed to keep Philip K. Dick’s paranoia and questioning of reality intact inside an entertaining ’80s trashy action movie. Probably one of the top three PKD book-to-movie adaptations… behind Blade Runner, of course, and I’m growing to like Spielberg’s Minority Report more than the original story.
And Hollywood has a tendency to make… well, really shitty “sci-fi” movies out of hot-shit science fiction properties (anyone else remember Surrogates? Cowboys and Aliens? Predators? Green Lantern? Need I go on?). For every District 9 or Inception, we get a good number of science fiction films that are forgettable, or best left forgotten. Just look at all the failed attempts to turn Dick’s novels into films—don’t get me started on Paycheck or Next. (I’ve realized that the irony of The Adjustment Bureau is that they didn’t develop the concepts far enough; probably why Rango, which went far enough and then some, beat it down at the box office.)
So, yeah, after seeing the trailer, I’ll eat some crow and say the new Total Recall looks pretty damn good. As in, see it opening day damn good. The visuals are astounding, for one, and the plot seems as Dickian as Dick’s original story. Also, the cast is pretty stellar. Colin Farrell stars, with support from Jessica Biel and Bryan Freaking Cranston as antagonists, and Ethan Hawk, Bill Nighy, and Kate Beckinsale in support.
The whole Mars subplot has been dropped, but honestly, what made the story interesting was Dick’s surrealist paranoid mindfuckery. The Mars angle was great flavor, but the meat of the story wasn’t the Martian rebellion, it was Dick’s eternal attempts to define reality and humanity, the sense that you never knew what was the true world and which was the implant. Something the poster hypes up:
Well, you know how to market a Philip K. Dick-based film and stay true to Philip K. Dick’s overarching vision; you have my interest.
So, here’s hoping that screenwriters and directors have figured out the proper way to adapt PKD to film, rather than skimming the surface-value concepts into another formulaic, chase-scene-rific shitty action film. (I really hated Paycheck and Next, okay?)
If you haven’t guessed from a few nerdy, deep-cut hints, this is Ridley Scott’s return to SF, a film long rumored to be a loosely-connected prequel of sorts set in the same universe as Alien. That may or may not include xenomorphs. But does involve a ship similar to the one found at the beginning of the first film; you know, the one with the alien eggs and the space jockey, which is one of the hints keen-eyed viewers might have spotted in the video above.
I’m interested to see how it pans out, because a return to the world of Alien—and a dark, mysterious, high-quality return like Prometheus seems to be—would be hella. We don’t see enough good SF/horror hybrid films. Scratch that, we don’t see that many good SF films in general.
Though if it is a prequel, it suffers from the same prequel problem that made the Star Wars prequels such a terrible idea. (No, not wooden acting, or bad ’90s green-screen effects.) The technology and spaceship look loving amazing, but it’s way more advanced than anything in the Alien universe so far. Hell, the ship’s actually got sub-orbital flight capabilities; all the other Alien films involved people using shuttles or dropships to get down. How could it be a prequel to the first film, when the Colonial Marines sixty-plus years after the first film didn’t have tech half this advanced?
This also depends on it being a prequel, which Scott has been tight-lipped about, so maybe he’s just using similar aesthetics to fuck with us. Or maybe it’s actually a loosely-connected sequel (gasp). And I’d buy the excuse that the Nostromo was an old-school industrial-grade klunker, and not a high-tech scientific research vessel. But still, between our advancements in (and expectations for) day-to-day technology and the high quality of movie SFX today, prequels for ’70s SF movies will never look like prequels.
Regardless, it looks awesome; whatever its connection (or lack thereof) to Alien, it looks to be a tense thriller in its own right. Since it opens in June, I’ll have something to watch once Avengers is through.
I’m not really sure if I should bother reviewing the film, considering everyone seems to have made up their minds before it even hit theaters.
John Carter’s fared poorly with critics, even though most of them gave mixed but somewhat positive reviews. Leonard Maltin gave a very balanced review before encouraging anyone interested to see it. Richard Corliss at Time ended with “I’m glad Stanton made John Carter; I just don’t know why he did,” after dishing out both praise and complaints (also stealing my “transcend or subvert the genre” line). There’s a legion of uninspired and unimpressed reviews, though, and a bunch of negative ones—the most critical being the one at Slant magazine, which was half review and half lengthy ad-hominum, calling the movie “a dollop of oatmealy, sick person’s poop.” (For balancing reasons, I’ll put Mark Holcomb’s glowing review for the Village Voice here.)
No, the film is not Casablanca, nor Citizen Kane. Nor is it on par with SF greats like 2001 or Blade Runner, or Avatar, a movie relative to John Carter in aesthetics, theme, and time. But oatmealy, watery poop? That’s the kind of derision I’d heap on a Star Wars prequel, or a direct-to-DVD release from some shithouse production company like Asylum—who happened to release Princess of Mars a few years ago, with the production values of the most insipid of SyFy TV movies and porn star/Juno Reactor eye-candy Traci Lords as Princess Dejah.
John Carter’s apparent sin is that its overinflated budget—$250 million, or more—only resulted in an above average, retroactively derivative, but most of all fun, blockbuster that’s failing to bust blocks. While it looks good, it doesn’t look as good as Avatar. And it’s got a long, long history of defying filmmakers, from Loony Tunes producer Bob Clampett, to Ray Harryhausen, to Robert Rodriguez and John Favreau and a half-dozen others, as a bad legacy to overcome. Add in that director Andrew Stanton worked magic on Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Wall-E, which translates to high expectations on behalf of viewers.
But the film feels like it was destined to fail. Disney’s lead-up marketing was half-hearted, starting with the decision to cut “of Mars” from the title, leaving us with the listless “John Carter” which tells the viewer nothing. Some too-little, too-late ads couldn’t make up for the lack of hype, the best of which being the ones for a Comedy Central special preview, proclaiming “John Carter / The Original Badass.” Plus, it was released well in advance of summer blockbuster season. And with its hyperinflated budget, the film needed to open to $100 million in order to spawn the franchise Disney was hoping for—a longshot given how badly the film was mis-marketed. Most of these relate back to the film’s director being brand new to live-action, and its executives being new on the job. The numbers are back in, and it broke $30.6 million in the US, charting second after The Lorax, plus $77 million overseas, leaving it the bomb critics proclaimed it as well before its release.
On the flipside. It’s been tracking very well with viewers, what few actually went to see it, and it has 70% user approval ratings at every site I’ve glanced at (Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, a B+ on CinemaScore, et al.). And that vocal minority is getting active, not just on the review aggregates but in the Blogosphere and on Twitter. With very few exceptions, the changes to the novel’s plot, and addition of elements from the second book, Gods of Mars, went over well with fans—good, because for the most part, the movie needed most of them. They leave John Carter capable but not superhuman enough to plow through each challenge undeterred (as he does a little too often in the first book), with Dejah Thoris more of a competent individual and not a lost romantic macguffin.
As for the movie itself? It’s fun, it’s enjoyable, it’s nowhere near an outhouse joke. But it’s not the cure for cancer that its price-tag might indicate. (Of course, this is Disney; they can afford to banter around with budgets in the triple-digit millions. Why should the film’s budget matter?) The effects are fantastic, with some amazing computer wizardry powering the machine-city of Zodanga and a variety of flying contraptions, plus all sorts of motion-capture Barsoom natives. The set and equipment design is spot-on amazing, giving a strong feel of the alien world, yet staying accurate to its source material (in essence when not in literal presence). I do wish there’d been more details to differentiate the Tharks, since there’s less feeling of individualization among them compared to Avatar’s Na’vi; the motion-capture work is good, but they’re like carbon copies. It’s easier to tell the humans—err, Red Martians—apart, even under their intricate costumes, henna-like tattoos, and British accents.
Taylor Kitsch, as Carter, does an admirable job, but it’s Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris who really pulls things off. A strong supporting cast, including William Dafoe, Thomas Hayden Church, Dominic West, and Mark Strong, round things out: all told, there’s no complaints about the acting. Kitsch isn’t my first choice for Carter, and I’m not sure he’s the perfect actor for the job, but he gave a good show of things. His chemistry with Collins is lacking, but passable; I think her performance was strong enough to make it work.
My big complaints would be that the movie has a surfeit of introductions, some of which should have been tossed to get Carter on Mars faster—the Arizona sequences are somewhat true to the book, but more a failed attempt to generate early-film action than a useful intro; they add nothing, except a woefully underused Bryan Cranston. Second, many of the action scenes are just too short: one of the longer ones is the vaunted gladiatorial sequence shown in the trailers, which tops out around 12-15 minutes. Including some setup. That gives the film a very disjointed feel, with lengthy sections of exposition that lead to overly terse action scenes. And as a PG-13 blockbuster, it needs those action scenes long and involved for the male teen audience. Third, see my aforementioned complaints about the generalized CGI Tharks. I can also see how the film would be confusing, throwing plenty of Martian terminology and history at the viewer; it made me giddy as a fanboy, but not everyone’s familiar with the source.
I did really like the film; it’s accurate to its source material, it’s entertaining, it’s got a good sense of humor and solid enough characters backing up cool visuals and an eclectic, action-filled plot. But it just didn’t give me that mind-blown sense of wonder that I got from seeing Star Wars as a kid, or Avatar just a few years ago. (To be fair, I went into both of those with no set expectations at all, knowing nothing about them, while I’ve read Burroughs’ first novel two or three times in the past fifteen years, most recently just before the film released.) This is the kind of slightly-campy, fun adventure movie I’d shelve next to The Mummy or Pirates of the Caribbean.
What we’re left with is an entertaining, fun film that doesn’t push the boundaries of cinema: it’s an enjoyable SF romp that isn’t as memorable or spectacular as it should be, but isn’t the motion picture equivalent of having your teeth pulled like everyone says it is. It’s less Howard the Duck and more Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, or whatever your preferential fan-favorite box-office-flop is. (I also thought John Carter was a stronger film, and truer to its source, than Disney’s previous franchise-killing flop, Prince of Persia.) It’s a niche genre film that cost too much and has a hard time appealing to those outside the SF nerd demograph. If you like no-nonsense, pulpy SF adventure, suspending your disbelief for some implausible thrills, go see it while you still can: it is worth seeing as a SF fan.
All told, this should be made of win. It’s Pixar’s first live-action movie. It’s bankrolled by the Disney Vault. It’s directed by Andrew Stanton, the mastermind behind Finding Nemo and Wall-E, who also happens to be a big damn dork and Barsoom fan. It’s one of the oldest and long-lasting works in the science fiction genre, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, the third—and first successful—attempt to bring the novel to the big screen, a hundred years from its magazine serialization. And it’s following in the footsteps of Avatar, itself a Burroughs clone (from Cameron’s own mouth), which proved that Star Wars-style space opera isn’t dead but, in fact, technologically elite. Plus, it’s got a rockin’ orchestral version of Kashmir, and the visuals are beautiful.
And outside of science fiction nerddom—proclaimed SF geeks, turn in your piece and shield if you don’t recognize the term Barsoom—nobody’s paying attention to John Carter. Which bodes very poorly for what should be a guaranteed cash-cow. Even the extended superbowl trailer didn’t fix any of the branding problems; the lack of hype and branding is still there.
If you look at the YouTube comments section for any of the trailers, about ninety-five percent of the comments are from people wondering why Disney’s ripping off Avatar and the gladiatorial scenes from Attack of the Clones. (This echoes other news sources.) The other five percent are a handful of dedicated fanboys trying, futilely, to point out that the movie is based on a venerable cycle of pulp adventures, and that in reality John Carter‘s trying to take back the tropes it devised a century ago. Though, to be fair, having established the tropes in-print means little when the main grounds for visual comparison are films both new and similar.
I’ll admit, when I first saw “John Carter” in a list of upcoming movies, I breezed past it. About thirty seconds later the little lightbulb popped on, and digging around on IMDB I discovered, yes, it was that John Carter. Losing the Of Mars in his title, despite the reference “John Carter of Earth” in the Superbowl trailer, doesn’t help; it’s a lame, uninspired name that tells you jack shit about the movie. (What were they thinking; irking core fanboys just so little Timmy doesn’t believe Mars is populated by insect-men, red chicks, and monsters? The idea that a guy wouldn’t see that movie, with a trailer full of action and violence, just because it has “Princess” in the name is laughable.)
Even the nod to “Mister Burroughs” in the first trailer was nice, but weak; most people aren’t going to make the connection to the writer. Especially when you’re dealing with a hundred-year-old pulp hero. And given its placement in time, you can see the executive reasoning behind it: we need another science fantasy hot on the heels of Avatar, and here’s a ready-made property that has all the same awesome stuff built into it. (Not that it stopped them from adding Avatar-esque flying fight scenes in TRON:Legacy, but y’know.)
At this point, it’s getting too late to turn the ship around; I can’t imagine they’ll pump out another trailer this month which will manage to explain both the point of the movie and that it originates a large number of the genre conventions the trailers showcase. Given the film’s affluent budget, estimated in the $400-500Mn range, it’s got to set fires under critics and woo non-fanboys in order to make bank. Otherwise, it could easily become this generation’s Waterworld; given that Waterworld was actually an entertaining Mad Max-on-jetskis action romp, and was mostly despised because it cost so much, took so long, and was nothing more than Mad Max on jetskis, I think the comparison (and fear) is grounded. (Waterworld : Mad Max :: John Carter : Avatar?)
Besides, we’ll never get to Warlord of Mars if the first movie tanks it.