November 13, 2005

Men died, women died, children died. But they went.

Snoqualmie Book Reviews and The Sci-Fi Canon Project jointly present Dune, Three Ways.

The first way is, of course, the original book by Frank Herbert. The second way is the feature film by David Lynch, and the third way is the Sci-Fi Channel's six-hour miniseries. It should surprise no one that a 500-page book packs in more background and character development than a six-hour miniseries, and a six-hour miniseries still manages to contain more than a two-hour movie, and as a result the book is the most fleshed-out and comprehensible while the movie is the least. But I'll be torn apart by Lynch fans if I assert that comprehensibility is the only arbiter of a story's value, and, indeed, they have a point. There's comprehensibility, there's visual style, there's the sheer enjoyment of watching. Call it a three-by-three matrix; Dune Nine Ways. Can you even imagine how long nine Dunes would be?

I have to start with the book, at least a little; it's the source of the characters and story, so it's the standard. As standards go, though, it's got its flaws. You can't get much more overblown than the story of the universe's long-awaited superbeing and the fate of the known world, unless of course you take frequent psychedelic metaphysical-masturbation breaks. Frank Herbert does so. He also makes extensive use of the colors black and white: the good guys are great, the bad guys are really terrible, this is absolutely the most important and widely-recognized thing going on in the universe but god forbid we should have moral ambiguity.

And yet, somehow, it's a good book. That's largely because it's so full; there's a ton of backstory and politics. There are 30 pages of appendices at the end of the book in case you ever wanted to understand how Kynes first met the Fremen or what the history of religion in the universe was before Muad'Dib came on the scene. I suspect that, much like J.R.R. Tolkein planned out languages and cultures before he wrote the books to use them, Herbert came up with all of the background first and then let the story write itself. It makes for good reading; when details are fleshed out that are relevant, interesting, but not actually necessary to get the gist of the story, it seems more like reading a news clipping than a novel.

All of that fleshing-out suffers in translation, though. As I re-watched the movie I noticed how much of the script was used directly from the book, or rather, excerpted directly from the book without Herbert's exhaustive explanation. "The gom jabbar kills only animals," says the Reverend Mother to Paul, but skips the arrogant Bene Gesserit philosophy of humans and animals that makes the remark make sense. Paul quotes his father in the movie as he does in the book, saying, "He who can destroy a thing, controls a thing," but it's apparently simpler and quicker to say that he destroyed spice production than to explain that he only conspicuously demonstrated the ability but never intended to use it. The miniseries does a better job on that count; a few dramatic lines may be sacrificed, but everything that's left is in its proper context. I suppose it's a luxury that comes with having six hours in which to work.

It's also a luxury that comes with sticking to the story instead of improvising. David Lynch improvises like crazy, with varying degrees of success. The Harkonnen heartplugs are, to my mind, brilliant. They're nowhere in the book, purely a Lynchian invention, but they sum up the Baron effectively: he's appallingly cruel and capricious. You could imagine him ringside at the archetypal Roman spectacle, shouting for more blood. If you had to drive that home in ten seconds of film, I can't think of a neater, more effective way to do it than to have him pull out a servant boy's heartplug just because he's happy. How about the weirding modules? Not, I think, so successful. They make filming fight scenes easier, but turn the weirding way, the ultimate weapon, from an art consisting of immense personal discipline into just another gun that anyone can pick up. They also confuse the source of Paul's power; the weirding way is part of the Bene Gesserit training, but the weirding modules are an Atreides weapon.

That's a problem of the movie overall -- Paul's power is made to look like it comes from his father. Duke Leto is the book's whipping boy; he's kind and well-intentioned and utterly impotent. "For the father," says the Reverend Mother dismissively, "nothing." He is not a controlling power in this story, and even as his fatherhood goes there is as much of Leto's father (arrogant, self-aggrandizing) in Paul as there is of Leto himself. He's not training an army in the weirding way; he doesn't even know it. He's got no business telling Paul how the sleeper must awaken. He doesn't know anything about sleepers. The name Kwisatz Haderach would be gibberish to him. Paul's power, all of it, comes from his mother and Leto never even knew what kind of power she had.

I'm running out of segues, but I'd really like to talk about the desert for a moment. If it's not too much trouble, you know, in a story about a desert planet. The thing about deserts is that they're hot, and dry, and pretty fucking boring and bare. If this description is inspiring you to think of grand, swelling, ominous music and a general preponderance of drama and action, I think you may be insane. Deserts are stifling and miserable and slowly suck the life and energy out of you. You cannot appropriately convey this by making 3/5 of your movie consist of glowing nighttime action sequences with an earth-shakingly loud, grandiose, four-note score by fucking Toto. Put some beige in. Turn the lights up. Turn the music down. It's hot, everyone's exhausted by the million small problems of living in a barren miserable environment, they've got headaches and sand in their teeth and they're thirsty, and they and their ancestors have been waiting hundreds of fucking years to stop living like this.

This is where I have to come to a complete stop and just praise the everloving fuck out of the miniseries. The miniseries paid attention in class, and got an A on the test because it paid attention to the fact that the biggest, longest-running war on Arrakis was the war of attrition between the desert and the Fremen. Behind this Big Story of the Atreides and the Harkonnens and the Spacing Guild and the spice, there is the small story of saving the water from your sweat and learning not to waste moisture crying for your dead. And behind that there is the bigger story of adding up all of those saved drops until you have enough to change an entire world; that's the dream of Liet-Kynes, the dream the Fremen committed to even though they knew it would take hundreds of years to come to fruition. If you don't know that, you don't know the Fremen. And if you don't know the Fremen, you don't know Muad'Dib, and if you don't know Muad'Dib, you don't know the story. So what's the point?

The point could be the characters; that's a good place to go next. I'm going to froth at the mouth a little here; just be warned. There are a few places where the casting and directing of people as characters go to extremes of both excellence and awfulness. Take the Baron. I do so love the Baron. You have to love the Baron! He's corrupt, lascivious, violent, megalomaniacal, and a scheming evil genius. In the movie he's a comic grotesque, a pile of sores, jiggling hairy flesh poking out through his robes, a greasy spitting utter fucking dirtbag. In the miniseries he's fey, superior, smarmy, and talks in rhymes -- just to make sure you realize that he's thinking way ahead of you. They both work gloriously. At least, they both work gloriously by themselves. One of them fails to live up to his relationships with other characters, and I'm sorry to say that means it's time to bag on Lynch again.

You can't talk about the Baron without talking about Feyd-Rautha, his lovely and sadistic nephew, and you can't talk about Feyd-Rautha without talking about extreme unsavoriness. Feyd is the young, still desirable version of the Baron, at 15 (yes, 15 at the start of the story) just growing into his bloodthirsty malice but already cruel and arrogant. The Baron of the book looks on him not only with avuncular fondness but also with unmistakable lechery. âSuch a lovely boy,â he says, âwith such a lovely body.â Eeeeeuch! Did I fail to mention the Baron is a pederast? His bedroom is decorated with statues of naked boys; he buys slave boys so he can drug and fuck them. This means, David Lynch, you have to cast someone as Feyd who it's remotely plausible the Baron might find attractive. Not Sting; it doesn't say anywhere that the Baron likes muscley 30-year-old rock stars. The miniseries gets the gold medal for this one, making Feyd an attractive, graceful, 18ish boy with an infuriating air of sarcastic, superior courtesy. He and the Baron flirt so vaguely and casually that you're already trying to scrub yourself down before you figure out why it was that your skin was crawling. That's exactly as it should be; that's what House Harkonnen is about.

To praise Lynch again for a moment, the movie's Piter de Vries is stupendous. The Mentats are supposed to be human supercomputers, and if you take an intellectually superior human and multiply him by a factor of ten, it stands to reason you'll get someone ten times as irritating as the most irritatingly superior geek you know. He's pedantic and socially ungraceful; he lectures and rolls his eyes at the idiocy of his audience, and, in fact, he's a weasely nerd with terrible hair. The Mentats in the miniseries, de Vries included, are Any Advisor, composed, coherent, and friendly. It hardly gives the impression that there's anything remarkable about them. I can't support it. I have to believe that if you train someone into geniusness from birth you'll wind up with a freak; just look at my high school classmates.

This is more costuming than characters, but I was asked a few weeks ago what I thought of the Spacing Guild agents. This was one of the things I had to re-watch the movie to figure out; I couldn't for the life of me remember what they were like. I've got it straight now: contemptuous industrial-punk-looking dictators in the movie, obsequious chinless monks in the miniseries. They're both all right. You can figure that having that much power makes them used to sneeringly ordering even the Emperor around, or you can figure that having that much power makes them used to being sacrosanct and not having to assert themselves. Me, I slightly prefer the mousy version, if only for the contrast between the massive political power they wield and the watery-eyed passivity with which they wield it. The Lynchian ones are more stylish, though, of course. I don't think much of the navigators themselves, which in both adaptations are distorted creatures that don't look remotely human anymore. The movie version is wattley and grotesque, and folds space by blowing it around through a mouth that looks more like an ass than any other mouth I've ever seen. The miniseries version is fragile and batlike, and points delicately to where it thinks space ought to go. It's all a game of how-the-hell-do-we-show-this, since Frank Herbert never explained how exactly the spice gas mutated them. In the book two Guild agents reveal themselves to be actually navigators, meaning whatever the mutations are, they're not visible. It's an appealing thought, but hard to show visually.

I do have to talk about Paul, I suppose. He's a bit of a problem. As a character in the book, he's unthinkably arrogant, demanding, and generally unlovable. Yes, yes, he's the Messiah, he's the superbeing, he's the salvation of the human race, but you really just want to slap him every time he goes off on one of his prescient visions. As Kyle MacLachlan in the movie, dear god, he's more slappable than the book could even approach. It's not so much because he's self-important, it's because he repeats himself constantly and won't shut up. In the miniseries, he's slappable more along the book's lines; he orders people around and harps on his own greatness. Both get the point across, but only one does it the way the book suggested. Chalk it up to a difference between adaptation and interpretation, I suppose.

That's the bottom line of this review: the book sets up an idea, the movie interprets it, the miniseries shows it as it was written. If you were thrilled with the book, watch the miniseries and find it authentic, plausible, and complete. If you weren't thrilled with the book, watch the movie and find it tweaked, stylized, and heavily edited. And speaking of authentic, for god's sake, I know it was 1984 but people who don't have water to wash their hair do not have perfectly clean, blow-dried curls. Put that in the paragraph about the desert; Note To Costumer: More Grease.

I can never seem to refrain from adding one last thing. The whole book is told through a framework of Princess Irulan's obsession with Muad'Dib. Each chapter starts with an excerpt from one of her books on the subject; there's the Manual of Muad'Dib, the Collected Sayings of Muad'Dib, Muad'Dib: A Child's History, Muad'Dib: Family Commentaries, and a half dozen others I can't remember. It's a nice touch; you could say, âIrulan is obsessed with Muad'Dib,â but it's more subtle to let the reader get 100 pages in before really noticing that she's spent her life writing about him. The movie's nod to that framework and that fixation is to show her as a narrating talking head twice or three times and otherwise ignore her. The miniseries says the hell with the narration, the hell with the excerpts, and instead works her in as a character who happens to be studying Paul with a phenomenal singlemindedness. She even seduces Feyd-Rautha to try to get an explanation of the feud between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, and frankly, anyone who'd touch Feyd-Rautha without three layers of protective armor is really hell-bent. It's one of the few original leaps the miniseries makes and a very nice counterpoint to the book's approach.

Here's my real last word, then, to get back to my original three ways. If you want comprehensibility, read the book, watch the miniseries as a second resort, and throw the movie into a lake. If you want visual style, watch the movie, watch the miniseries second, and feed the book to your dog. If you're just looking for the optimum balance of satisfying and enjoyable, watch the miniseries and fling both movie and book under the wheels of a bus. Take your pick. The comparative study is fun, but when you calculate the hours of my life I've spent on it, between reading, watching, and blogging... well, I think it's high time I look into some new hobbies.

Posted by dianna at 12:52 AM

September 21, 2005

The The Hell With The Sci-Fi Canon Project Project

This is wildly out of proper chronological order, but I've just been reminded of a movie I need to review. It's a sci-fi movie which is so far from being a part of the abovementioned Canon that I had to invent a new project to justify writing a review of it.

The movie is called Primer (release year: 2003). I watched it a couple of months ago on Jacob's suggestion, knowing nothing about it except that it was a low-budget, independently-produced sci-fi movie. That usually adds up to disaster; just watch a few episodes of MST3K and you'll see what kind of awful things have been done to audiences in the name of independent sci-fi. But an essential point has to be made: science fiction is not made of pretty visuals and impressive special effects. Science fiction is made of novel ideas and skillful storytelling. You can do that as well, or as badly, for $7,000 as for $30,000,000.

On to the plot. There's a synopsis here, but you should probably know that I'm still struggling with the question of whether that synopsis constitutes a spoiler. In case you don't want to risk it, I'll give you the most vague plot summary possible. Two guys, tech-geek-inventor types, invent something in their garage that they didn't mean to make and don't quite understand. It takes them, and us, half the movie to be sure of what it is they've made, but the possibilities for using it are extremely compelling. They try, and wind up over their heads, and try to fix it, and wind up over over over their heads. It's not a movie about our creations turning into monsters that destroy us. It's not a movie about monsters, period. It's a movie about science, which is a thing that gets really hard to understand really fast. That's it.

Let's cut a few words out of that sentence. It's a movie about science, that gets really hard to understand really fast. The GreenCine reviews, and my own opinion, are pretty much unanimous on this point: it's confusing. It doesn't help that for $7,000 you don't get crystal-clear closeups of people's faces during key lines that are delivered with all the perfect intelligibility of the fiftieth take, but that's just icing on the cake. It's a complicated, twisty plot filled with technical details (which I suspect of having not been intended to be understandable) crammed into quite a short movie with confusion as a main theme. Don't go watching it when you're in the mood for fun, mindless entertainment. Watch it when you don't have the Rosetta Stone handy to decode but you could just about be in the mood to do so.

You may love it; you may need to go back and re-watch it (the special features, which I neglected to watch before returning the movie, are said to clear things up wonderfully); you may get annoyed and decide to wait until it comes out in print. These are all fair. But to paraphrase that omnipresent bumper sticker, if you're not impressed, you're not paying attention.

One last comment: I considered comparing Primer's style to that of Nine Queens, the unusually slow and satisfying heist movie for which I am inexplicably the number one Google result. I decided against it, then read through a GreenCine member list called "puzzle movies" and found them both on it. Ha! Go watch 'em both. You'll be glad.

Posted by dianna at 02:35 PM

September 12, 2005

He'll find her. That's what he does! That's all he does!

The Sci-Fi Canon Project continues with Terminators 1 and 2, which I watched out of order. Interestingly, I don't think that diminished their continuity.

Terminator 1, which is mostly a standard pre-Asimov bad-machines story, works much better in my opinion as a prequel to Terminator 2 than as a movie in its own right. It may have still been hot in 1984 to watch a movie about an unstoppable killing machine with no empathy, but 20 years later it's pretty damned played out. Even in 1990 it was clearly more interesting to watch a movie about the potential of a machine to have human virtues it wasn't programmed for, instead of the usual human vices. Terminator 2 is the philosophical brand of sci-fi; a machine is a hero, a machine is a villain, and the fact that they can go either way just as we can begs the question of what difference remains between them and us. It's startling to watch that and then go back in time to see the movie makers and the characters starting out with this "machines" idea and fumblingly finding the same first idea that people have been finding for centuries: machines are monsters. They are our Oedipal children and they will grow up to kill us.

It's funny, now that I think about it, that this two-movie review is just the opposite of what I said about the Alien movies. This time the big, spectacular, melodramatic sequel has more to offer than the smaller original. Don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting that Terminator 1 is as bad as Aliens. It's a good setup, or a satisfying after-the-fact back-story, to its own sequel and it ties into it nicely. In whichever order you watch them it's fun to hear Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese use the same lines to the same frustrating effect. The second time you see someone yank a cop out of his car, get in, and drive off, it's hard not to grin.

Of course, both movies also get full points for beating the crap out of LA. To paraphrase the Princess Bride (please place emphasis as used by Fred Savage), thrown out the window of the Galleria is good. Buildings blown up with spectacular fireworks and gunned to bits is also good. It's hard to argue that that's not a sign of Just Another Action Movie, which I lambasted Aliens for being, but here's my official position: if you have something interesting to say about the nature of your heroes, villains, humans, and monsters, you can be Another Action Movie and still be good sci-fi. Thumbs up.

Posted by dianna at 11:32 AM

September 09, 2005

Death or glory, just another story.

I'm behind on my reviews; I have to write about Ways of Dying and I have to do Sci-Fi Canon Project reviews for Aliens, Terminator, and Terminator 2. I think I'm also going to do reviews for Nickel and Dimed and Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf, both of which I read nearly to the end a few months ago and have been finishing up and re-reading this week.

For today I'll stick to Aliens, because what I have to say about it is simple: bigger is not better. This very large movie comes off much less impressively than its small predecessor.

What do I mean by large and small? Alien had nine characters, and that's counting the cat and the alien. At no point was anyone else onscreen or involved in what was going on. That was what made it something other, and better, than space opera. It was personal.

Aliens isn't personal. Watching big guns spit lead at an onrushing wall of tentacle monsters doesn't hit home like watching one unarmed man edge through a cavernous engine room full of dripping water and clinking chains while a single monster waits quietly in the corner. Have you ever been a Marine armed to the teeth and facing death as your comrades die around you? For most people reading this, most likely not. But I've been one ordinary person wondering if something is about to detach itself from a shadow and come after me. Probably you have too, even if it was when you were six and scared of monsters under the bed.

It's a problem of subtlety and originality. They had to add juuuuust a little more monster, then juuuust a little more hero, and that's like leveling table legs: you can't stop until you've gone way too far. So now we have Heroic Defense Against Overwhelming Odds. It's one of the oldest movie formulas there is. It's Just Another Action Movie Where People Fall Like Flies. Yawn.

I'm barely inclined to allow this into the category of sci-fi, actually, since the aliens could just as easily have been replaced by anything else. Try it. Sharks? Berzerkers? The Utah Jazz? Since there's no attention paid to the whats and whys and hows of the aliens this time around, they could be savage purple monkeys (or the flying spaghetti monster) for all the difference it would make to the story. Minus one for the Canon.

Posted by dianna at 10:41 AM

August 18, 2005


Continuing the Sci-Fi Canon Project, Jacob and I watched Alien last night. It was excellent. It was scary as all fuck and extravagantly unpleasant, without being the kind of movie that will still keep me up at nights two years later.

Typical hostile-contact stories go something like: large crew of heroic explorers finds alien race, embarks on epic space battle from comfort of own ship using lasers and whatnot, glorious triumph and/or crushing defeat wrought by combined forces of entire human race or political entity thereof. Alien goes more like: small crew of tired bitchy tow-truck drivers doesn't want to deal with this shit, gets bullied into it by ship computer, winds up with one lousy alien on own ship and can't even fucking handle the stupid thing seven on one, and, to make it worse, gets no help and will probably get no recognition from the rest of the human race for any of this crap. It's not space opera. It's much more satisfyingly realistic, which is saying something when we're talking about 8-foot-tall exoskeletoned aliens that reproduce by wrapping around people's faces and shoving eggs down their throats. Speaking of which, that's gross. Jacob found a trivia page online last night that said that H.R. Giger had to keep changing his designs for the movie because they were "too blatantly sexual". I do have to wonder how much more blatant they could possibly have been.

And yet, and yet, I didn't wake up screaming from nightmares last night. I've put some thought into why. For one, it wasn't a "this could happen to you" movie. This could only happen to you if you were out landing on frozen planets and poking around wrecked ships. The monster doesn't come out of the municipal water supply or the bedroom closet, it comes out of the middle of fucking space. If it were going to be in my kitchen, other people would know about it before I would. For two, the real horribleness depends on the setting: miles of dark claustrophobic corridors and cluttered engine rooms, too few people, too little light and no good weapons. Fine. Try it on Earth, bitch. Here we have floodlights and open space and the National Guard. This leads me to number three, which is that the monster can actually be killed. It's an animal that'll die if it's badly injured, not some kind of undead supernatural force against which there's no known defense. You just need a big enough gun. Four, there's no question of it having reasons for trying to kill you. You're just a big blob of tasty flesh standing in its way. If you get away from it, it'll find some other blob of tasty flesh. It's not going to track you down wherever you are for some kind of vendetta.

Hence my dreams last night, which, while admittedly Alien-themed, weren't nightmares. I just dreamed that we (the usual unclear dream "we") had to reopen and reclose an airlock door over and over because we kept accidentally bringing in something that was supposed to stay outside. It didn't do anything, it just wasn't supposed to come in. Open, close. Aw, crap. Open, close. Damnit! Open, close. Oh, not again. Open, close. Can you fucking do this right for once? And so on. Not restful, but not terrifying.

The Sci-Fi Canon is redeemed, and the project goes on.

Posted by dianna at 10:09 AM