Producer Jesse Alexander just wrote up an interesting guest column on website io9 recently, (which you can read here), where he talks about a couple of subjects that I’ve been thinking about lately: the vast difference between substance and visual appeal of the science fiction genre, particularly in movies.
In his piece, he notes that CGI-laden blockbusters have really taken over the movie theaters over the summer season, almost completely. This past summer, we’ve had Terminator 4, Transformers 2, GI Joe, Star Trek, and Harry Potter all costing in the hundreds of millions of dollars to produce from beginning to end, none of which were really all that great, while the two standout movies in the SF genre were Moon and District 9, both of which cost $5 million and $30 million to create, respectively. This begs the question, as Alexander does, where did these two films succeed where the others failed.
The above films all did really well at the box office, grossing back quite a bit of money (although Terminator: Salvation did pretty poorly, but it will warrant a sequel, if the rumors are to be believed) but of everything that was released this summer, only Moon and District 9 really captured the essence of science fiction on all levels. They were wholly original, influences aside, and are the ones that have come out of this summer that will be remembered for a long time as solid entries in the genre’s film side of things.
One of the things that charges are laid against is the use of CGI in films, which has become far more sophisticated and prevalent in films, especially science fiction films. I’m not totally sure that CGI is really the thing to blame here, but the effect that it has on filmmaking and the entire process. CGI is a fantastic tool for filmmakers, especially in the science fiction field. The problem comes when the glamor and expanded visual field overtakes the story in terms of importance.
For me, story is everything with a film or television show, and the Science Fiction genre is a fantastic place for any number of possible stories. There have been a number of fantastic films out there that I can put forward as an example for good storytelling: Minority Report, The Prestige, Serenity, The Fountain, Pan’s Labyrinth, and of course, Moon and District 9. These movies utilized special effects throughout, but did so in a way that didn’t jeopardize the story to the extent that other films might have. A couple of television shows, such as Battlestar Galactica and Firefly have followed much the same philosophy with their approaches to CGI: the visuals are placed in the film/show to support the events in the story.
My favorite example is 2005′s release of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and Serenity. Both films with significant fanbases, but with very different approaches to the stories. Serenity was a much smaller film, with a killer story to finish up the Firefly TV series, while Revenge of the Sith was a far more bloated and cumbersome film that cost a significant amount of money to produce. Given the financial troubles and uncertainty of the next couple of years, I would bet that that type of filmmaking will continue, but there will be a rise in films such as Moon, Serenity and District 9. Each of these films received a large amount of critical favor, and while none approached the same amount of money that these larger films pulled in, they didn’t cost as much as the much larger films.
One thing about these huge CGI films that I noticed is that the ones this summer were already part of a larger storyline or franchise – there were a lot of numbers after the titles, and I have to wonder if that is part of this empty storytelling trend that Science Fiction seems to have picked up over the past couple decades. I don’t mind sequels – There’s a number of stories out there that I love seeing more of. But, when does a good franchise become a cash cow, with more of the same to it? Transformers was reportedly like that, even up to the director’s level, where more of the same, but just more intense was better. Harry Potter has largely been like this from day one, and Star Trek wasn’t all that impressive after you started thinking about it. This, to me, is a sad thing for the genre, one that I’ve always seen as being far more creative than most of the other genres out there, if only for the exotic subject matter.
There are a couple of things that bother me about this sort of thing, mainly that people are more than happy to take any sort of mind-numbing entertainment and expect nothing more. While this is a bit of a leap, it seems like this is a problem that extends far beyond the entertainment realm, from education to politics. Moon and District 9 worked brilliantly together this summer because they were two films that had intelligent plots, good characterization and an unconventional way of presenting the stories. Despite that, I read a number of reviews that noted that the plots didn’t make sense, that there weren’t enough explosions and the like. These sorts of reviews usually bother me, as they did with reviews about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, where people just didn’t, or couldn’t understand what the stories were about, and because they didn’t like them, refused to think any more about the subject.
What I am hoping will come out of this is that smaller, cheaper, genre films will become more popular, with producers who are willing to take a little more of a gamble. The films this summer proved that filmmakers could get around expensive effects, by using models, preexisting locations and actors who might not necessarily be as well known. If there are any lessons to be learned from this summer, it is that when a good story is in place, the film can succeed toe to toe with any of the big blockbusters. For me, I’m happy that there’s something out there that’s a little different, a bit challenging and above all, something that makes me think about what I’m watching.
Serenity won the Dramatic Presentation: Long Form in the Hugo Awards, which were presented this weekend at WorldCon. Congradulations! It certainly deserved it, and it’s finally gotten something that it deserves.
The reason: Serenity came out on DVD today. And, exams are over for me. So, for an entire semester, I’m through with Norwich, and am not officially on Winter break, until the 5th, whereupon, I’m leaving the country. So, it’s a good day.
However, I had to run around throughout the entire campus to try and find a number of people to get approval to study abroad. I hate paperwork. First, to the Bursar’s office. Then across campus to the Study Abroad office. Then to Financial Aid and the Registrar, to my advisor and the department head. Then I was given another slip of paper that made me repeat most of that. Now, I’m trying to fill out a transfer of credits form with no one around to sign off on it. I’m really hoping that I can get this finished this week.
Now, Serenity. The best movie of the year + No Class = JOY!
AND – The Supreme Court ruled the Intelligent Design theory unconstitutional to be taught in classrooms. Another point for intelligence.
Not quite what I was expecting, but it’s a decent cover. Looks a bit like the Chronicles of Riddick DVD cover.
Woohoo! It came! I’m now the proud owner of a shirt emblazened with the Serenity logo! A while ago, I joined the official message board and fan section, and through various contests and polls, I gathered points. Four weeks before the movie was released, the powers to be opened up the official store- and I found that I had enough points to get a shirt with the logo. So, four weeks go by, doesn’t come, movie hits theaters, don’t have it. I was a little worried that it wouldn’t come. Then today, I come home to pick up some work and walla! It’s on the door. I’ll try and get pictures.
In other news, Karen Traviss’s latest novel, The World Before, is due out today, according to her and Amazon.com, although the local bookstore that I called said that it’s not due out until November. Gah! I’m really looking forwards to this book, because the last two have been amazing, right at the top of my favorites list. At least it’s not being released next year like I thought that it was earlier…
Gah- I’m tired. I can never seem to wake up really well, especially when my alarm doesn’t go off like I set it. Combined with the fact that I didn’t get to bed until 1, I’m very tired.
Anyone like Arrested Development? The second season just came out on DVD- I was finally able to watch the entire thing. There were some great episodes in that season, some better than others, but Alan Tudyk, Ben Stiller and Zach Braff both made guest appearances in a couple episodes, which was hilarious. This season, Charlize Theron is making 6 appearences, which should be really cool to see.
I finally finished American Gods! I’ve been trying for about three years to finally get around to finishing it, and it usually turns into me reading a chapter, then forgetting about it. Despite that, It’s an amazing book, I just have never found time to read it through completely. But, having finished it, an outstanding read.
I mentioned a while back that I’ve started doing some more writing, mainly poetry, inspired by random moments throughout the day. It’s refreshing, and I’ve begun to get back into the habit of writing more often, moving back to prose. I’m starting with a story idea that I had a while back after reading a Popular Science article on commercial space stations, a couple months after the first civilian space craft, Space Ship One, hit orbit.. The idea that I had earlier was a space station disaster, but not much more than that, but the disaster would be the main idea behind it. I’ve now shifted my focus to the effects of something like that. I guess that we’ll see where it goes.
Oh, and I found a list of deleted scenes from Serenity. Let’s hope that they’re on the DVD:
00:00:21:21 (EXTENDED LILAC ENTRANCE)
00:01:05:20 (EXTENDED KAYLEE AND JAYNE)
00:02:18:20 (INARA AND SHEYDRA)
00:02:12:15 (OPERATIVE TRACKS MAL)
00:02:22:05 (EXTENDED RIVER AND SIMON/HAVEN OPENING)
00:01:27:16 (ESCAPE FROM COMPANION TRAINING HOUSE)
00:00:13:17 (MAL AND INARA SHUTTLE CHASE)
00:02:16:04 (MAL AND INARA QUIET MOMENT)
00:01:06:20 (EXTENDED MAL AND OPERATIVE CODA)
I could tell that there were some scenes that should have been a little longer. Shiny!
I just came across this little bit of news. It looks like there could be a Serenity DVD in stores as early as December, according to this article:
Our ever reliable industry sources are telling us that Universal will soon announce the DVD release of Joss Whedon’s Serenity for 12/20. Early word indicates that the disc may include Whedon audio commentary, along with at least 4 behind-the-scenes featurettes (Future History, We’ll Have a Fruity Oaty Good Time, Re-Lighting the Firefly and What’s in a Firefly), a video introduction to the film by Whedon and 6 minutes worth of outtakes. Some of the details on the extras comes from the BBFC website (click the link and hit enter).
Shiny news! I’m so getting that the day it comes out.
Never did get around to talking about opening night for Serenity. Eight of us went up from school. Me, Eric, Keelia, Kyle, Matt, Justin, Stewart and Karthik all drove up in two cars for the 6:45 showing. We got there pretty early, at 6, got our tickets, then got dinner. We ate, chatted a bit, then went to the theater and waited for the movie. Saw a LOT of people that I knew, from Harwood, Camp or Norwich. Saw Rachel, who was pretty upset over a missing cat, I’ll have to remember to call her later… Brigham, from Harwood and Norwich, good to catch up with him, a couple other random people from Harwood, people who Eric and I had talked about earlier that day, talk about weird.
Eric and I had gotten together earlier that day and went up to Burlington to hit the comic shop, where I got most of the comics on that list below, except for the Iron Man one, which is beginning to look pretty lame, which is disapointing, considering that Orson Scott Card wrote it.
The thing about SciFi movies with good fan bases is that it’s the waiting that counts. Being in a theater with a couple hundred other people who are looking forwards to it just as much as you are is something like nothing in this world. There’s a certain energy about it that’s just cool to be apart of.
This morning, Stuart and I manned the Tactics booth for Parent’s Weekend, basically doing a bit of recruiting for the club. Not too many people stopped by, but some were interereded. Kind of a waste of time though. I went back to see Serenity later that afternoon for time #2. Just as good the first time.
On another note, does anyone have anything by Zero 7? Great British band with some cool stuff. Looking for recommendations.
Not that it’s any surprise, but I have a new favorite movie. Serenity far exceeded my expectations in terms of story, film work, acting, action and CGI. While not a perfect movie, it came damn close.
The movie picks up about 6 months after the television series Firefly ended, and very soon after the three comics end. In it, we see River get rescued by her brother, then see that they have a new agent after them, an Operative. Fast forward, and the crew’s on a job- robbing a bank. Simon’s pissed at Mal because River’s been included in this op, in which she performs very well and they get off almost completely- except that while they’re robbing the place, Reavers hit the town. We knew they were scary in the series. Up close, we see what they look like and what they do, and they’re downright terrifying.
Crew goes back to space to finish the job, and Simon and River intend to leave. River, on the other hand, goes into a fighting mode while in a bar, destroying the place and forcing Mal to leave again with them. They realize that there’s something major up, and they find out what triggered her, and found that River is essentially a time bomb, created by the government. They turn around to hide again, and find that everywhere that they have hid has been destroyed by the Operative, who’s encountered them once already, at Inara’s planet. The rest is amazing, and you’ll have to see it to see what happens. Let’s just say epic space battles and the origins of the Reavers.
Storywise, it’s extraordinarily strong. We have the same caliber of storytelling that we had in the series, but more epic and more packed. This entire movie could easily be the second season, but with a much larger budget. Seeing the series is handy, and you feel like you’ve never left it. The characters are the same, Serenity is the same, the ‘verse as a whole is the same. It’s like returning to a room that you haven’t lived in for a while, and found that your books are in the same order in which you left them.
There are some minor differences in the verse here and there, such as the Alliance ships, uniforms and soldiers, as well as costumes and other random things, but these are minor differences.
Characterwise, Nathan Fillion stands out the most as Mal. He’s the way that Fox wouldn’t let him: Dark, grim, slightly funny, but an empty man who’s just trying to survive, and when the prime opportunity to hit the Alliance gets to him, he takes it, no matter what the costs. The next biggest character is River, who’s still crazy, but even more so. We learn WHY she’s gone crazy through, which is part of the focal point of the entire movie. We see that she’s conditioned for combat, and has some amazing fight scenes towards the middle and end. Simon and Kaylee finally get together, Wash and Zoe are about the same and Jayne’s never going to change. Inara comes in about half way, and she’s great, while Book’s role has been reduced to a smaller cameo, which is a shame, but his character is a little darker this time around, and we don’t find out anything about him, just more questions.
Film wise, this is also really amazing. Opening right off from the Universal Logo, we are launched right into the story, and is given a huge explanation for the universe. We’re then treated to one of the best opening sequences that I’ve ever seen, that shows us the ship and all the characters, all in a 4.5 minute continuous take. Must have been hard as hell to shoot, but it’s worth it. Throughout the rest of the movie, we’re treated to a lot of the same film work that we saw in the series: Handheld, zooms, following characters and some cool angles. The consistency is very well done.
Zoic, the special effects company that was responsible for the series, as well as the new Battlestar Galactica once again did the CGI, doing an outstanding job. There are some inconsistencies in some scenes between the movie and the series, such as how things move and things like that, but that’s to be expected with a big budget film. Serenity looks spectacular, as to all of the CGI scenes that it’s in.
There are a couple of things that I wasn’t a fan of. One was the deaths. Book and Wash both are killed, and while I applaud Whedon for killing characters, Book’s death seemed kinda out of place, while Wash’s was done perfectly. I’m not fond of their passing, but it worked well. Same thing with Zoë’s reaction. Some people that I’ve talked to seem to expect that she’d stand over Wash’s body for a long time or something, but that wouldn’t fit with her character. Her acting suicidal and without hope was much more accurate, although I think that they really could have spend a little while longer on what happened there.
Action scenes: Amazing. River is definently a very, very deadly and graceful opponent, and man, her action scenes were just mind blowing. Same thing with the space battle towards the end- excellently done.
I can’t really think of a lot more to say that hasn’t been said, but man. Go see this movie. Many times.