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SFFH in Film, TV, and other NonTextual Media

Wednesday 25 December 2002

More on Solaris

§ As noted below, many mainstream film critics may have liked Steven Soderbergh's version of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, but the film's detractors include, unsurprisingly, Stanislaw Lem, even though he has no intention of seeing it. A Boston Sunday Globe article by Jeet Heer (December 15) quotes Lem:

"I have not seen the film... hence I cannot say anything about the movie itself except for what the reviews reflect, albeit unclearly - like a distorted picture of one's face in ripply water. However, to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space.... I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of human encounter with something that certainly exists... but cannot be reduced to human concepts, images, or ideas.''
The article goes into detail about SFWA's honorary membership for Lem in 1973 and the subsequent controversy and revocation.

§ Nor have audiences warmed to the film, as Dave Kehr explains in last Sunday's New York Times, comparing it to 2001 and changing audience ideas about sci-fi.

"2001," of course, opened at a time when many young Americans were just saying yes to a variety of illegal substances, many of which enhanced appreciation of enigmatic situations and surrealistic imagery - not to mention spectacular light shows. But 1968 was also a time when speculative science fiction in the ambitious, literary mode pioneered by A. E. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov in the pages of Astounding Stories was still in vogue. Even George Lucas made a grown-up science-fiction film, "THX 1138," a 1971 parable about an authoritarian future society, before the runaway success of his "Star Wars" transformed the genre, apparently forever.

With his densely imagined world full of big-hearted Wookies, damsels in distress and buzzing light sabers, Mr. Lucas returned science fiction to its adolescent state - to the science fiction of comic strips, pulp magazines and Flash Gordon serials. Speculative elements were set aside in a formula that consciously drew on the ancient, mythical archetypes treated by Joseph Campbell in "The Hero With a Thousand Faces." The genre was no longer about the future, but about the past, a long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away.

What we call science fiction now is really a portmanteau genre, a form that incorporates elements of the western, the swashbuckler, the detective film and assorted other, once distinct, structures into an all-purpose adventure mode. Science fiction in the "Star Wars" mold became the perfect narrative style for the end of the century, one that gathered up the themes and motifs of 100 years of popular culture into one uber-genre, very much conscious of its own derivativeness.

Enough Trek?

§ Most critics have been kind to Star Trek: Nemesis, but a few have had enough, notably Roger Ebert:

I've also had it with the force shield that protects the Enterprise. The power on this thing is always going down. In movie after movie after movie I have to sit through sequences during which the captain is tersely informed that the front shield is down to 60 percent, or the back shield is down to 10 percent, or the side shield is leaking energy, and the captain tersely orders that power be shifted from the back to the sides or all put in the front, or whatever, and I'm thinking, life is too short to sit through 10 movies in which the power is shifted around on these shields. The shields have been losing power for decades now, and here it is the Second Generation of Star Trek, and they still haven't fixed them. Maybe they should get new batteries.

I think it is time for "Star Trek" to make a mighty leap forward another 1,000 years into the future, to a time when starships do not look like rides in a 1970s amusement arcade, when aliens do not look like humans with funny foreheads, and when wonder, astonishment and literacy are permitted back into the series. Star Trek was kind of terrific once, but now it is a copy of a copy of a copy.
He's echoed by Stephen Hunter in Washington Post:
I feel a rant coming on. Sorry, folks, this isn't going to be pretty. You might want to look away, or at least send the children to their rooms. But . . . really, can't they hire a decent costume designer? To my eyes, those double-knit two-tone sweatshirts with their slight shimmer and complete inability to wrinkle or drape like actual clothes, and those little dweeby badges, and all that short hair and all those freshly scrubbed faces . . . I CAN'T STAND IT! MAKE IT GO AWAY, PLEASE!

And the sparks. For some reason, dating back to the TV years when special effects were hardly advanced and the budgets minuscule, the "Star Trek" action sequences all involved sparks falling from pipes. That squalid tradition continues, so that in the oh-so-frequent space and phaser battles, rogue phaser blasts and other rays of destruction always bring showers of sparks raining down. It's like the worst kind of sensible suburban Fourth of July.

Then there's the sparseness. For all the size of these big ships, the movie has a small cast and even fewer actual characters. There's no sense of bustle, or teeming activity; it's just a few actors, most of them bad, on big, bad, empty sets. Was the Extras Union on strike or something? There must be seven speaking roles in the whole damned thing.

Monday 2 December 2002

Seeing Solaris

§ Mainstream reviews of Solaris have been remarkably positive (in contrast to our own Gary Westfahl's) — see links below. An exception is Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman's review (he gives it a C):

[T]he movie, in its perverse way, fits snugly into the Hollywood bean counter's corrupt view of the universe -- namely, that there are two kinds of movies: big, accessible, popular entertainments and small, ''elite'' films doomed to commercial oblivion. When a celebrated filmmaker begins to think that way, it can be a convoluted form of self-sabotage (and self-glorification). Snail-paced, suavely shot, and steeped in postmodern melancholy, ''Solaris'' is like ''2001: A Space Odyssey'' directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Soderbergh is making a movie, all right, but more than that hes flaunting his cred, his power as a hip industry player helping to position a quasi-obscure '70s-style art film in the thick of the holiday/Oscar rush. It's as if he wanted us to think, Is this guy a cool industry rebel or what?
Meanwhile, Sunday's Los Angeles Times features this dual interview with Solaris director Steven Soderbergh and producer James Cameron.
Steven, you'd never made a sci-fi film. So what attracted you to this material?

: When I was almost done with the first draft, I was thinking, why did these weird happenstances occur? Why did I pick this title out of anything [Cameron's company] had? Why do I want to write it? I realized that it's about love and about death and clearly something is pulling me to that. I didn't realize until way into the process that I was working through, in some very oblique way, what had happened with my father who died very suddenly and to whom I was very close.


One of the great opportunities for a director doing a movie set in the future is, what does the future look like?

: Didn't care. Didn't care.

Taken, In More Ways Than One

§ The Steven Spielberg executive-produced miniseries Taken, on the Sci Fi Channel, debuts tonight, to much advance publicity, and decent reviews (e.g., in Los Angeles Times, and Monday's Washington Post which says the series "might even qualify as cable's 'Roots.' "). But why is Spielberg so obsessed by UFOs? Chris Mooney in Slate offers a somewhat cynical explanation.

Suppose that the truth really is "out there," as The X-Files postulated, but not exactly where you might expect. In other words, rather than a vast government conspiracy to conceal proof that aliens have visited Earth, perhaps the real plot lies elsewhere. The entertainment industry, for instance, is constantly putting out films, TV shows, and pseudo-documentaries suggesting that Americans are being visited or even abducted in droves by gray-skinned, strangely kinky spacemen-and that the government wants to keep it all quiet. Dark Skies, Roswell, Fox's Alien Autopsy special Could the real conspiracy be on the part of the mass media and designed to make people believe in UFOs because it helps ratings?


In a recent interview, Taken screenwriter Leslie Bohem noted that Spielberg once said to him of alien abductions, "If this isn't true, then why are all these stories the same?" To which Bohem replied, "Maybe because of your movies?"

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