- LIFE is not a bad movie, but it’s a B-movie. #LIFEmovie #rental
- So yeah, if you liked the trailer that’s what the movie is. No more, no less.
- There IS a long, lovely single-take intro that’s maybe the best zero-g scene ever in a space movie
- There’s also a major action scene toward the end that just doesn’t work very well, IMO
- But there’s tension/suspense, gross-outs & scares. Things zip along in a 10-little-Indians way that can’t help but remind you of ALIEN.
- The ending (SPOILER!) reminded me of the ’70s when big studio pictures more often than not went “tails” at the end instead of “heads”
Currently I’m watching two very different TV shows: SyFy’s The Expanse and CBS’s Supergirl. The differences between them, and how I find myself reacting to them, is making me think a lot about what’s really important in storytelling.
The Expanse is SyFy Channel’s prestige programming. It’s complex. It’s dark. It looks expensive. It takes itself very seriously. It tries very hard, but often to little effect. Supergirl, on the other hand, doesn’t hardly seem to be trying at all, but the emotional payoffs have been surprisingly powerful.
The storylines in Supergirl are your basic, primary-colors comic book stuff. No gritty re-imagining here. It’s not a perfect show: dialogue can be clunky, and effects and production design are often pretty cheesy as well. The stories are quite simple. But they resonate, because the writers are working basic, relatable themes: family loyalty, prejudice, anger vs. self-control.
The character of Supergirl (aka Kara) illuminates how important backstory can be to creating a relatable character. Like her more famous cousin, Kara was rocketed to Earth in a little space capsule by parents who stayed behind to die on doomed homeworld Krypton. The big difference between the two of them: Kal-el (Superman) was a baby when he left Krypton. Kara was 12. This simple fact makes Supergirl a much more interesting character than Superman, and has been driving the best story moments all season. Kara remembers her home, and her parents, and she misses them terribly. At times, torn between her human and Kryptonian identities, she literally feels alienated from the human race. She has anger issues. Think about that one for a minute: Supergirl has all the powers of her cousin. If she really came unglued, she could do a lot of damage.
We got a glimpse of that in the episode where Supergirl was temporarily turned bad by some red kryptonite. It revealed an inner life full of resentments, and made me think about her in a way I never had with Superman. (This hour also featured some of the best acting ever seen on the show, and yes, this is the one that made me cry.)
Ultimately, Supergirl’s corn and goofiness don’t matter: I understand the characters and I want to know what they’ll do next. I am entertained.
“Entertainment,” I imagine, is probably not a word that comes up much as often as it should in The Expanse writers’ room. To their credit, it feels like they are smart people working very hard at the 10,000-foot level to honor the big story arcs of the books (I haven’t read them).
The show plays a long game, over the course of the first season setting up political tensions on an interplanetary scale between Earth, colonial Mars (now an independent state), and the Belters, roughneck denizens of the industrialized asteroid belt. But big things are made up of little things. And The Expanse is rarely compelling at the smaller scale, the scale of viewer engagement – that is to say, individual scenes and episodes. (See Game of Thrones to observe how a show develops big story arcs while simultaneously making things work moment-to-moment. Personally, I’m not much into swords-and-sorcery stuff, but I’ll make an exception for GoT because… well, because that shit is undeniably gripping.)
The weaknesses of The Expanse are instructive to me because as a sci-fi guy I’m enamored with all the things it counts as virtues: the detailed world-building, the realistic hardware, the getting the physics of space travel (mostly) right. Yet, all through season 1, I struggled to stay with it because I didn’t much care about what was happening. There was a glimmer of hope in episode 2, when space-freighter guy Holden logged a distress call in direct violation of captain’s orders, forcing them to change course & try to help. Stakes! Conflict! Characters are what they do, and I saw Holden make a hard choice to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. So now I’m in his corner. As the show has progressed, it’s been interesting to see Holden become the de facto leader of the Rocinante crew, despite the fact that they all rightly blame him for the pickle they’re in. I hang onto Holden and his gang to stay afloat in a sea of I-don’t-care.
But those scenes aboard the Rocinante are only about one-third of the show. The UN/Earth scenes are all talk. I just wait for them to end. The Ceres scenes are tough going too, but for different reasons. Sorry, maybe I’m a bad person, but I don’t care about the downtrodden people of Ceres. Oh, hey, you know who I cared about? Those mutants on Mars in Paul Verhoeven’s TOTAL RECALL. The Ceres scenes kinda bring those guys to mind. Again, stylistically far goofier than the grimness of The Expanse, but in TOTAL RECALL the basic requirements of drama had been met: I got to know the mutants. Early scenes introduced some of them to me as individuals, so when their oxygen got cut off, it hurt. The people on Ceres, by comparison, are an undifferentiated bunch of rabble. They are a symbol. And because they are a symboI, it doesn’t much matter to me whether they have air and water.
Furthermore, I didn’t care about the missing girl – the other part of the Ceres storyline – because again, I’ve been given no reason to care. Onscreen for maybe 10 seconds, at the beginning of episode 1, what we were shown of her was totally cryptic. I understand we were building a mystery, but if I can’t be told any info about the girl because it’s a mystery, I better damn well care about the guy who’s trying to solve the mystery for 10 episodes… but I come up empty there too. I don’t know why he’s working on this case except that his boss told him to. Oh, and I think he fell in love with a snapshot of the girl. Really?
There’s also the problem of uniformity of characters. Personalities in The Expanse range in disposition from “tough-but-fair” to “mass-murderer,” so inevitably we’re steeped in hard-boiled dialogue, all delivered with unblinking stares. It gets old. To differentiate the characters, some of them have accents, and a few of them are women (UN lady and mohawk girl*). This is the same flaw – wall-to-wall second-rate tough talk – that very nearly made me bail on season 1 of Netflix’s Jessica Jones, before that show was redeemed around mid-season by virtue of its terrific villain.
There are other things about The Expanse that make watching something of a chore. There’s a triple-whammy of accents, slang, and an invented language, compounded by characters who mumble, or whisper, or struggle with English pronunciation (UN lady). I’m not sure how much a crummy stereo mix has to do with it, but I for one am constantly rolling the DVR back trying to tell what’s being said. I should just turn on the subtitles I guess.
Finally, The Expanse is sometimes hobbled by what seems like indifferent direction. There are fumbled opportunities to build suspense and pay it off with action. Setups are poor, so when action comes, I’m surprised or confused. Moments that should have visceral impact slip by because I’m trying to interpret them. Hey, somebody in a spacesuit (can’t tell who) just did something! A gun went off! Whose gun? Which way was it pointed?
Happily, there are exceptions to this. Most notably, a terrific scene in the season’s final episode, set in the lobby of a seedy space hotel. Pretty much every character in the show arrived there at once, all of them looking for the mystery girl. What transpired next was a long, wordless scene as the suspense built, and built, and built… and was finally paid off with a shootout that was absolutely bananas. I was grinning.
The Expanse is telling a complicated story. For that, it should be applauded. I’ll bet I’ve been more patient with it than your average viewer, but, like an average viewer, I am tuning in for entertainment. I want a payoff. So far, The Expanse’s payoffs have been kind of meager. I’m hanging in there, hoping it will get better. Rooting for it, really, because on many levels The Expanse is just what I always wanted in a sci-fi TV show. It’s been renewed for a second season, and I’m glad. It would be a shame to see it go away. There’s a lot of potential there.
*After an entire season I can’t remember anybody’s name except Holden’s. For that I’m not going to apologize… or Google, for that matter.
A little spoiler-y, I suppose, especially toward the end. You’ve been warned.
As usual Jonze gets details just right. I ❤ Theo’s safety pin. A lesser mind would have given him a taller phone or shallower shirt pocket
I’m taken with how Jonze forgoes cynicism/anger. Theo’s job: ghost-writing personal letters. A chance to bludgeon us with satire…
…but Theo’s great at his job. His letters are poetic, heartfelt; we can’t feel superior. Emotions are real & valid regardless of origin?
Last time 2 AIs talked in a movie it was COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT. Here, we get Samantha chatting to an Alan Watts simulacrum. (Swoon.)
I did wonder if Theodore returned to the mall to ask for a refund on OS1. Think I would, if my Mac told me it needed to see other people.
HER is a gentle, sweet love story that takes on big scifi ideas with ease and grace. I admire many films; this is one I wish I’d made.
(No major spoilers here, but if you’re like me, sometimes even an opinion can be more than you want to know. Fair warning.)
- GRAVITY literally a gripping experience. My wife’s hand, arm of the chair…
@gloomboy: “They should warn you to wear a bite guard.”
- A nuts&bolts movie, vein of APOLLO 13, or mountaineering/submarine pic where survival hinges on physical things, like a wrench or a rope
- Cuarón is a visual master. The pacing between the hairy suspenseful moments and the more meditative ones in GRAVITY is nearly perfect.
- If GRAVITY falls short of being a classic, it’s because of some lazy Hollywoodisms that took me out of the moment.
- If I could do my own director’s cut of GRAVITY I’d excise the Sandra Bullock’s character’s backstory and all the music.
- Yes you should see GRAVITY, and in the theater. Find the biggest screen you can and spring for the 3D.
I’m @giantspecks on Twitter.
Yesterday, around noon, we hit our fundraising goal for our film, NEW.
Our heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone who has donated and helped spread the word. Because of you, we’ll now be able to make a film we’ve been burning to do for a year now! We plan to be shooting soon, and have a movie for you all to see before the end of the year.
USA Projects has extended our campaign through May 24, so if you’ve not yet supported us with a donation, you still have time! The $22K goal represented the minimum budget need to make the project – any additional funds will be put to good use. That’s a promise!
Our deepest appreciation, from me, Sheila Harden, Don R. Lewis, Skot Christopherson and the entire NEW crew.
These are the end times, friends: the campaign for our sci-fi film NEW concludes Wednesday night, May 15, at one minute to midnight, PST. If we fail to reach our goal of $22,000 by then, all shall be for naught. Everyone will have their donations refunded. And We. Get. Nothing!
That would be, as they say, a bummer.
To sweeten the pot and (for some reason) reward the procrastinators out there, we are now offering a choice of two BRAND NEW PERKS to anyone who can donate $200 or more! Please view the video above to learn more about how donating to the NEW campaign will bring total fulfillment to your life.
Once again, thank you for your support! Now, please share the link to this project with someone today. No, really, like, right now. Here’s your cut and paste:
And check back for more updates soon!
: : :
SHOUT-OUTS TO SOME EXCEPTIONAL HUMANS
Many people have stepped up in many ways, to give of their time and money and effort to support our cinematic aspirations. Here are just some of them:
The Arts Council of Sonoma County
We would not be here on USA Projects at all, if not for the seminal support of our local arts organization. Thanks to John Moran and Jennifer Sloan and everyone at the council.
USA Projects, and Rose Kuo from the Film Society of Lincoln Center
It’s a honor to be invited to use the USA Projects platform to promote and fundraise for my work. USA Projects has supported us in many ways, notably by choosing NEW to receive April’s Creative Vision Award: $5,000 in matching funds that have helped us immensely in approaching our goal. The guest judge who selected us to receive the award was Rose Kuo, so our deep appreciation goes to Rose as well.
My boss, Tom Armstrong has been generous with his time, money, and resources to help me realize my dream of making NEW. It’s all really quite counter-productive, because he knows if this project takes off in a big way I might have to quit working for him to go make the feature film version of NEW. That’s just the kind of guy he is.
The American Cryonics Society
Is cryonic preservation right for you? If you’ve been thinking it over, these are the folks you want to talk to. Edgar Swank, president of the society, has read the script for NEW and ACS has been a supporter of our efforts from early on. An article about NEW will be forthcoming in the next issue of their magazine, Long Life.
Deep appreciation to this friend of NEW, the noted futurist and Hugo-award winning science fiction author, for great endorsements on his Facebook page and his blog, Contrary Brin. You should totally buy all his books. In hardcover!
Sci-fi fans! Hollywood got you down? Are you drowning in the mainstream? Weary of TRANSFORMERS transforming? Of mugging movie stars dressed as superheroes? Do you despair at what passes for science fiction on the big screen?
Hell, maybe I’m projecting. Maybe you think all that stuff is awesome. It takes all kinds to make a world. That’s why they make more than one flavor of ice cream.
Love or hate it, or love it and hate it, you can be more than a passive consumer of sci-fi film. Do what these guys did, and make some of your own!
Some of these films are unabashedly inspired by the mainstream aesthetic of Hollywood and Lucasfilm. Others serve as reactionary rebuttals. All substitute sweat and ingenuity for blockbuster budgets. Some are charmingly home-made in their look, others are polished productions that give Lucas a run for his money. This is DIY sci-fi.
These are labors of love: no studios and no investors. Budgets are shoestring, and often crowdfunded. Labor is often volunteer.
This article isn’t a comprehensive list of DIY sci-fi, not by a long shot – just some interesting projects I happen to know of. I’d like to know about yours, too. My intention is to append this list over time. Feel free to add your links in the comments.
All I Think Of Is You (Short, 2012)
In this stylish and moody short, a widow is hounded by a stranger claiming to be her dead husband. It’s currently doing well on the festival circuit, but you can see the first two minutes at writer/director Shad Clark’s website. Poke around and you’ll find some of his other videos, including an unsettling little diversion involving misuse of a safety razor. Shudder.
The American Astronaut (Feature, 2001)
Director Cory McAbee (lead singer of San Francisco cult musical act The Billy Nayer Show) cast himself as the lead in what RottenTomatoes.com described as “ERASERHEAD meets BUCK ROGERS by way of an MGM musical.” See the trailer here. McAbee’s singular vision took him to the Sundance Film Festival. Although, like McAbee, I live in the Bay Area, I’ve managed to miss every chance to see his film. What can I say? It’s in the Netflix queue. [Update, April 4, 2014: It’s also now available online for free from online distributor SnagFilms. Search the SnagFilms site or watch it here in this article on Indiewire.]
Bellflower (Feature, 2011)
This hallucinatory bromance depicts two guys preparing for an apocalypse they seem convinced is coming. How? By building a souped-up super car and a fucking FLAMETHROWER of course. It’s broken hearts and brain injuries, it’s geek culture meets machismo, and it will get under your skin. This debut feature played Sundance, is distributed by Oscilloscope and is probably a bit high-profile for this list. But the DIY aesthetic on display is undeniable, both in front of the camera and inside it: the filmmakers shot Bellflower on a home-made digital camera pieced together from vintage camera parts and Russian lenses.
La vie d’un chien (The Life of a Dog) (Short, 2005)
Would I be blogging about DIY sci-fi if I wasn’t making some of my own? My story of a scientist and the serum that turns him into a canine is told in a montage of black-and-white stills. This technique allowed me to depict biological transformation and societal upheaval for a pittance, while serving as homage to Chris Marker’s masterpiece La Jetée (DIY sci-fi from 1962!).
Microgravity (Short, 2006)
A tense, surreal thriller about an astronaut alone in orbit. Loneliness and boredom turn on a dime into claustrophobia, panic and fear of that cold, hard vacuum just outside the bulkhead. Beautifully, expressively shot. Great set design too. Watch the entire film, below:
Pig (Feature, 2011)
Pig begins with a somewhat familiar movie premise: amnesia. As the lead character tries to unravel the mystery of his own identity writer/director Henry Barrial demonstrates that sometimes it’s less about premise and more about execution. Strong performances from the leads keep this slow-burner absorbing, right through to the revelatory final scenes. [Update, April 4, 2014: PIG is now available via many outlets including iTunes and Amazon. Or cut out the middleman and get it from the filmmakers.]
Primer (Feature, 2004)
Shane Carruth’s debut feature marked the first time a science fiction film took the top prize at Sundance. It’s very self-assured filmmaking. What begins as a low-key, brainy story of engineers who accidently invent a time machine becomes increasingly strange and confusing as the plot begins to loop back on itself. I have yet to meet anyone who claims to fully understand it. Rent it. Or go to Carruth’s website for a digital download, and a preview of his second film, which looks to be even more disorienting.
Project Arbiter (Short, 2013)
It’s World War II. The Nazis have invented an invisibility suit, and the Allies have to steal it! Who wouldn’t want to see that movie? They just wrapped post, so you might be able to, very soon. Meanwhile, here’s the trailer and the website.
Project London (Feature, 2013)
It doesn’t get more DIY than this! Chockablock with cool vehicles and giant robots, this futuristic feature out of Seattle, Washington was birthed by an all-volunteer crew using Blender, a free, open-source 3D software. Currently in post. Will it be any good?! Check out the trailer and Project London website and see what you think.
The Third Letter (Short, 2010)
Both director Grzegorz Jonkajtys and producer Bastiann Koch are SFX pros with serious industry credentials. It bleeds from every frame of this tale of futuristic dystopia.
Radio Free Steve (Feature, 2000)
This “1980s vision of the future” is like BELLFLOWER’s idiot trailer-trash cousin. It’s your basic post-apocalyptic road comedy, with nods to DAMNATION ALLEY and containing a crazy “lost film” backstory about the supposed director, one “Lars Von Biers.” Loose, profane and occasionally quite funny. The producer somehow managed to secure songs for a soundtrack that includes tracks by Luna and Boards of Canada. Watch the NSFW trailer here.
Radio Free Albemuth (Feature, 2010)
This indie feature based on one Philip K. Dick novel which is apparently so weird Hollywood hasn’t found a way to make an action movie out of it. I have yet to see it but it should be noted RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH has earned the approval of hardcore Dick fans and the Dick family estate.
They’re Made Out Of Meat (Short, 2005)
After an extensive survey of planet Earth’s dominant species, an alien reports his astonishing findings. A clever staging of the clever (and much-circulated) short story by author Terry Bisson. Watch it!