Category Archives: SF

What is it About the Genre Movies of the 1950s?

If you are a fan of genre films, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror there a better than even bet that no matter your age the movies produced during the decade of the 50s holds a special place in your heart.

While Universal Horror started in the 1930s with Frankenstein and Dracula by the 1940s they were already being seen as kids movies with their stories becoming more simple and more focused on spectacle. Remember the first ‘shared universe’ of movie is the Universal Horror franchise as the monsters frequently were thrown into the same movie for bigger and bigger fights and thrills.

However once we get to the 50s there is change in the movies. There still were not ‘prestige’ pictures. These productions did not boast A list stars, they struggled with budgets that were too small, and were rarely taken seriously by the critics. And yet these films are ones we still watched more than half a century later. These are the films, beloved and respected, that soulless corporate executives, produced from business universities and without creative artistic drive, that are rebooted, reimagined, and recreated into tent-pole films without the heart, soul, or intelligence of the originals. But why do we love those originals so much? What makes them so different from the bigger budget, more star-driven, and more elaborate movies of later decades? After all how many 70s SF movies, a prolific decade even before the KT Impact of Star Wars, are still being rediscovered today?

I think the answer lies in cynicism, or rather the lack of that bitter philosophy. When we left the 50s behind America entered a period of profound cynicism. The 60’s brought the Vietnam War, civil strife, televised police brutality, and a collapse of established social conventions. The 70’s grew darker with awareness of global pollution, economic shocks, military defeat, and of course Watergate. Distrust of government and nearly all institutions infected nearly ever aspect of our culture including cinema. All our films, including genre ones, took a dark turn surrendering to nihilism and cynicism that masqueraded as wisdom. The 80’s brought us the summer blockbuster, technically born in the 70’s The Godfather, Jaws, and Star Wars, but it took the studios several years to begin chasing them in earnest. Light summer fare that ignored both the cynicism of the 60s and 70s but avoided serious thoughtful stories instead providing adventure as escape.

It’s now surprise that the movies of the 1950s appeal to an idealism that has been absent for far too long. Now we have to be honest and recognize that the 50s were not the idyllic American Summer. It was a period of repression, conformity, and suppressed individuality, but the lure of simplicity is powerful. Against that social conformity genre films of the 50s expressed not only an optimism stripped away in the follow years, but through movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them!, and many others they critiqued the culture and ourselves. How could such films not last the ages and not continue to find new and wider audiences?

Share

Is The Doctor still The Doctor?

Toady the new lead actor for the BBC’s long running fantasy series Doctor Who was announced and for the first time a woman will be playing the eccentric Time Lord; Jodie Whittaker will be replacing Peter Capaldi. I have very little impression of Ms. Whittaker and so I will be approaching her performance free of expectations. (I was a Capaldi fan before he became The Doctor and knew he was going to give it a terribly good twist. He will be missed.) Given that every time The Doctor ‘regenerates’ into their new form it carries with it a new personality for the Time Lord, and that we have seen Time Lords flip sexes before, I have no issue with this coming incarnation. I am more excited by the change in show-runners. Moffitt has also been hot and cold for me and I am hoping that the new series will be more consistent in what I want from the show.

This new casting has brought to mind an age-old question about writing. Are men and women so distinctly different as to be two utterly separate types of people?

I know people, smart talented people, who insist that no man can adequately writing a woman’s character. The underlying premise in that view is that men and women are distinctly different, existing as unique categories. That is not my opinion but it is one held by a great many people and as a matter of opinion it is not subject to proof and objective truth.

However, if you believe that women and men are so different that they might as well be alien to one another and that their characteristics do not overlap, then when a Time Lord flips sexes they must cease to be the person that they were before. This is not a minor alteration in the matrix of their personality. Not a matter of being a little more silly, a little more jaded, a little more deceitful, a little more noble or any of that, but a change of a foundational nature as to make them alien to their previous self.

So, Is the Doctor still the Doctor or do we have a person with The Doctor’s talents, memories, and skills calling themselves by that title but is in fact an impersonation?

I think women can write men and men can write women and as such while the person may change somewhat, this is still the Doctor, but I wonder how someone with that other world-view reconciles the new Doctor against the Old.

Share

Setting vs Genre

At a fellow writer’s Facebook wall we’re discussion the elements required for a story to be noir. Because we are SF writers the conversation naturally revolves about the intersection of noir and science-fiction. This has gotten me thinking and those and a few other terms and I’ve come to the conclusion, probably not original, that there is a difference between Setting and Genre

In this concept Science-Fiction is a setting, it has particular rules that govern its use and violation of those rules can lead to some and even most people excluding a piece from the setting definition, but it seems to me that genre is more about what is the intended or likely emotion reaction of the reader and as such is independent of the setting.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor was, according the author, written as an SF/Romance. The setting is science-fiction, the far future, humanity spread out among the stars broken into new nationalities. The genre is romance, the story of two people divided by their warring cultures and yet who fall in love.

Alien is Science-Fiction/Horror the setting is clearly sf, a spaceship deep into space. The genre is horror as the characters, trapped aboard their isolated spaceship, contend with a monstrous being.

Back to the Future is science-Fiction comedy the science-fiction elements, a lone scientist, time travel, are clear while the story is a farce about the clash of perception versus reality when it comes to one’s own parents.

All three of these works are Science-Fiction but looking at them simply through the lens of their setting tells us very little and nothing at all about if these are stories we want to experience. It is only when we examine to the mood intent of the piece, romantic, horrific, or hilarious that we can gather these disparate works into recognizable useful categories.

Share

And a New Novel is Started

Today I begin writing my next novel. Not outlining, not world-building, no engaging in character creation and study, words in a row, prose production, actually writing the book.

This may effect my productivity here on the blog but I am going to struggle to keep that interference to a minimum.

My production goal is 1500 words per day minimum with a stretch goal of 2000 words. I am shooting at a 90,000 to 100,000 word size for the book so it should not take too long.

For those in the know this is another Seth Jackson novel, about an American serving in the European Union’s Starforces. Set in a future where America took a wrong turn early in the 21st century and ended up a third rate power and humanity has expanded into the local stellar area still shackled by their bickering nationalities.

The first book in the series landed me an offer of representation and I look forward to spending time again with these characters.

 

Share

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Middle films are difficult beasts. When you are part of a larger franchise, particularly with the experiment in printing money called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, pulling off a satisfying film that takes place during an unresolved arc can be challenging. It is a challenge that many fell George Lucas failed at with The Empire Strikes Back but that Peter Jackson succeeded with in making The Two Towers. James Gunn has succeeded with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Since the Guardians are going to be playing a major role in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars the sequel to their own hit movie was sort of trapped running in place, unable to invest in major changes of the sort Marvel’s did with Captain America: Civil War. Gunn’s solution to this problem is a terrific one; Focus On Character.

The heart and theme to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is family; the family that we can’t choose and the family that chooses us. Major unresolved threads from the first film, principally the identity and nature of Peter Quill’s father sort as the engine moving the narrative along, but every character is explored through the lens of family. It is a testament to the writing that when reveals are exposed we can see that Nebula’s hatred for her sister Gamora is not entirely unfounded.

Another aspect of the scrip that displays true craftsmanship is the proper implementation of Chekov’s Gun. This is not a reference to the Enterprise’s humorous nationalistic navigator but the esteemed Russian playwright who famously advised that of there is a gun on the mantle in the first act it must be fired by the last. There are plenty of writers who competently place those guns on the mantel, fired them diligently, and then drop them to the side, forgotten. The best writers not only put the gun there, but use it again and again through the story, drawing a tight weave of elements making it so that the gun is not there simply for that one shot, but is a legitimate part of the world’s texture. Elements in Guardians are established, play their part, and then return to play further parts, driving the narrative forward with a relentless sense of inevitability that heightens the resolutions.

This film would be fun to watch on its own, but as a further exploration of these quirky characters and their tangled relationships, it’s a sheer joy. I fully endorse anyone going out and seeing it.

Share

Movie Review: Colossal

This morning I finally found the time to drive into Hillcrest to one of our local Landmark theaters and catch the Anne Hathaway Kaiju flick Colossal. Now those are words you really should not have expected to go together. In addition to being a giant monster movie, Colossal is also a comedy and a dramatic take on addiction and poisonous relationships.

Very fitting for this film the word Kaiju is actually Japanese for ‘strange beast’ and the story is a wonderfully weird and strange beast.

Ann Hathaway plays Gloria, a woman whose life due to alcoholism is spinning out of control. She loses her home, her relationship, and has lost job. Without resources or money she returns to her childhood home where she reconnects with a childhood friend Oscar played by Jason Sudeikis and continues her self-destructive drinking and behavior.. Things take a strange turn when an enormous monster appears in Soul South Korea. Gloria possesses an unexplained connection to the monster, one that in the end brings to a head all her unresolved issues.

Written and Directed by Nacho Vigalondo Colossal is an example of something I mentioned in an earlier essay, a movie with a message that is not a message movie. Vigalondo, like Joss Whedon, understand that comedy is best frontloaded, but one serious stakes are raised, the light-hearted approach gives way to drama, character, and real consequences.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this film, it has very nicely written characters that are well realized by the cast. Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis are terrific, particularly Sudeikis who manages a twist that feel organic without creating a sense of falsehood. The story moves along at a good pace but without sacrificing the essential moments that develop and reveal character. The resolution is organic and emotionally satisfying. Colossal has gotten a limited ‘art house’ release so it may not be showing in your area but if you can see it do so.

Share

Stealth Science-Fiction Films

It’s pretty easy to know an SF movie when you see one. Most are pretty upfront about the genre that they are intending to occupy, but a few films are secretly living a science-fiction life.

Most often you’ll find these movies an stories sold as some sort of action genre. Spy movies, and not just James Bonds films, are particularly ripe with this. The classic cold war movie Ice Station Zebra turns entirely on the technological triumph is a new lens and a new film that makes the picture in the wayward spy satellite so valuable to both the USSR and the USA. Another example, one that spawned a whole sub-genre was The Hunt for Red October. The ‘caterpillar’ drive was a product of imagination, pure science-fiction, yet that film is rarely cataloged with the rest of the genre but rather gets called a ‘techno-thriller.’

My personal favorite of the stealth SF movies is . (I am of course speaking of the original and not the mindless idiotic remake.) Spoilers follow for the film but considering it is more than 50 years old if you really wanted to see it unspoiled you have had your chance.

In the movie Raymond Shaw, a rather brisk and unlikeable character, wins a Medal of Honor for his actions under fire during the Korean War. His mother, a strident anti-communist married to a rising star of a senator, tries to use Raymond’s service to help her husband climb to the vice-presidency as this is an election year. However it turns out that Raymond has been brain washed by the communists and is in fact a perfect assassin who operates without any recollection of his actions. This is all part of a larger plot that threatens the very foundations of our republic. I have left out a few of the really big twists and reveals because this is a hell of a movie and if you have not seen it, you should.

That bit of brainwashing is pure fiction, that level of conditioning is beyond any actual psychological theory or practice, thus this story is clearly SF. The advance in science/technology s critical to the plot and if removed the story cannot stand.

If you poke around in the corners of film you can find all sorts of stealth SF hiding for you like treasures.

Share

Harlan Was Wrong

Harlan Ellison is a powerful voice in speculative fiction, a celebrity within the genre subject to countless second-hand stories, and the credited writer in what is arguably the best episode of Star Trek, The City on the Edge of Forever.

It is a well know within the industry that Harlan was -displeased- with the final version of City and that identity of the person who re-wrote his screenplay into the final version was a secret for decades. (Eventually it was reveal to be the show’s story editor D.C.Fontana, a fantastic writer herself.) I have read both the final version and Harlan’s original script, published as part of his book about the experience.

There is no doubt a number of major changes were made to the script, some of them lost touching moments of history, some of the added wonderful moments of comedy, (Stones knives and bearskins) but the greatest change and the one that appeared to upset Harlan the most involves the story’s resolution.

Quick recap of the story: Kirk and Spock have followed McCoy through a time portal to the great depression where McCoy, under the influence of an accidental drug overdose, somehow alters history and prevents the formation of the Federation. They discover it is because he saved a woman, Edith Keeler, from a traffic accident and she prevents the US’s entry into WWII, leading to a Nazi victory and a new dark age.

In Harlan’s original vision, at the moment that the truck is barreling down on Edith, both McCoy and Kirk, Kirk because he has fallen in love with the idealistic pacifist, rush to save her, but cold, emotionless Spock holds them back, dooming Edit and saving the future.

For the Broadcast Version when the truck speeds towards Edith, it is Kirk, though in love with her, that restrains McCoy, killing Edith and saving the Future.

Harlan has said that in his opinion it makes sense for Spock to be the one to hold the emotional men back, that he is the only character capable of taking the required action and there is a powerful logic to that argument.

However logical, I think it is weaker storytelling to have Spock force the issue. To me the most important and powerful stories are about characters, their choices, and the consequences of those choices. Spock saving the future is a foregone choice, hardly one at all. The consequence to Spock is that he may damage his relationship with these two humans, but given his unemotional nature that is hardly a consequence of importance compared to the entirety of history.

Kirk making that choice is much more powerful. He is a man of passion and emotions, the abstract future weighed against the very real woman he loves is an agonizing choice. The consequences are personally devastating and irrevocable. It ranks right up there with Sam Spade sending Bridget over for killing Miles Archer, but has even more of a gut punch because Edith was pure and Bridget was evil.

No, the better storytelling device is Kirk torn and making the decision that will haunt him to the end of his days.

Share

Why So Good?

On Facebook I saw a user post the question; What Made Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan so good? Rather than answer in the comments I decided to take that up as an essay.

There are many reasons why The Wrath of Khan is such a good film, and most of them can be found in the script.

The characters acted as they should have from the series. It’s known that the dry, colorless script for Star Trek: The Motion Picture flattened the life out of their characters, shattering their relationships, and setting them in pursuit of opposing goals. Spock using Kirk and emergency to seek his own enlightenment? That’s hardly the Spock we knew. While lots of good drama can be crafted from close characters in opposition, breaking the fundamental friendship of these characters does little to endear fans. Khan returned us to the characters and relationships we knew and missed.

The story flowed logically from the actions of the characters. Once Reliant stumbled across the survivors of the Botany Bay the rest of the events flowed naturally from those characters and their viewpoints. Pull out a character and the story falls apart. What I am saying is that there was indeed a real story and not simply a plot.

The limited budget meant that the filmmakers were forced to think about story over spectacle. It can be a curse to have unlimited or nearly unlimited special effects budgets. Instead of thinking about character beats and moments, it is easy to get seduced into bigger and more elaborate stunts and special effects.

The film never lost the people in the plot. A few years ago at a Science-Fiction convention I had the chance to confirm with the director Nicholas Meyer, what I think is one of Khan’s most brilliant bits of editing. Watch that film closely, every single time a weapon, phaser or photon torpedo, strikes a vessel the very next shot is people getting hurt and killed. Every single time. This pummels you with the inescapable knowledge that this grand battle between starships is always about the people aboard and the costs that they pay.

This film has no bloat. It hits the ground running and does not let up. And yet in that fast action/adventure pace it always finds time to breathe and reveal character.

Truly this is a masterwork of filmmaking.

Share

Message Movies and Movies with a Message

I read an interesting piece yesterday about the changing nature of film criticism. The crux of the article was that once upon a time films that presented a clearly denoted social or political message were ‘lesser’ films and often savaged as such by the professional critics while now films devoid of such intent are the ones savaged as empty, pointless fare.

The message movie has been with us for more than one hundred years with the massive in scope and its repulsive message mother of these being ‘Birth of a Nation.‘ (quickly followed by the message-movie as apology ‘Tolerance.’)

I would stipulate that there is a profound difference between a ‘message movie’ and a movie with a message. A message movie is one where the lecture overpowers the story and swamps any entertainment value it may offer. The platonic ideal of this sort of filmmaking is the ‘after-school special.’ Message movies are inherently moralistic, take themselves overly seriously, and stand upon soapboxes to waggle their metaphorical fingers in the audiences’ faces. Is it any wonder that they are often money losers and have gotten a bad critical rep?

A Movie with A Message is a different animal. It is a film where the story comes first and the message comes second. 1954’s Godzilla (Gojira) is a wonderful example of this. Godzilla is first and foremost a monster movie, one that was so wildly entertaining its budget and technological limitations became such strengths that it spawned a new genre of movie. But under that excitement of a giant monster wading ashore in post-war Japan there is a powerful message about the threat and dangers of nuclear power. A short time later America would release Them! with a similar message buried under a mystery of giant ants that stretched from the Arizona deserts to the maze of sewers under Los Angeles.

One of the best rejections I have received came from a short story that was a sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The editor commented that in addition to the action and the horror the story was about something. This pleased because I think that all stories are strengthened by themes, as long as the theme does not transform into an ‘After School Special.’

Science-Fiction when it is done well it a fertile field for this sort of subversive story telling. It’s much easier to hide you commentary among the purple skinned aliens than among contemporary characters.

That said there is also a place for the blatantly pointed story with a message. The recent, an terribly terrific, horror film ‘Get Out,‘ is not subtle in its message, but never does it sacrifice story and experience for a lecture. As an artists of any kind, never be afraid to putting down what you believe. You should embrace such impulses, for your voice, your viewpoint is the only thing that truly sets you apart for the other practitioners of your craft. For story tellers, remember story comes first, but meaning is not an accessory it is a feature.

Share