Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Schooling Sci-Fi On A Better Class Of Films
With all the garbage the Sci Fi Channel offers up (Alien Apocalypse, Yeti, Rock Monster) where we are invariably forced to see bad CGI run amok, it is refreshing when they air truly well-crafted films. And I wonder why they can't do it more often.
It's not just the bad acting and crappy special effects (just because your monster is made in a computer doesn't make it Jurassic Park), the writing plays a big part. That's true for most films. Even if audiences can suspend disbelief and forgive less-than-stellar performances, the film will fail without good writing and direction. It's a complex orchestration with all parts needing to pull their weight to achieve a successful project.
Yet, time and again, the various production companies upon which this network relies are all-too-satisfied to proffer up scripts riddled with holes, lacking motivation and without any thought to what makes a strong character. They rely too much on blood and CGI gimmicks, which aren't well executed. FYI, the reason the first Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween films were effective is because they didn't show you the monster. You keep it half-hidden. The reason isn't only to disguise limitations, but to understand that fear exists in the spaces between. Yes, the cinematography can be decent and visual moods are usually well established, but that won't matter one bit if that former porn star (because, let's face it, they often hire pretty over talent) can't choke out a line or two from that horrid script with enough conviction to suspend your disbelief.
Now that I've unleashed my vitriol, let me applaud those projects that Sci Fi should look to as the bar to which they should hold all future series, miniseries, and films.
Taken (2002) - This Steven Spielberg-produced epic alien abduction miniseries, which spans five decades and three families, won both the Emmy and Golden Globe for outstanding miniseries in 2003. At a staggering 15 hours long, it made other miniseries seem like YouTube shorts. Stars Dakota Fanning, the Blair Witch Project's Heather Donahue, and Saturn Award-winning actress Emily Bergl lent gravitas to the well-crafted script that follows a complex hybridization process involving human and alien lineage. Why does it stand out? Well, excellent writing, directing, and special effects don't hurt, but ultimately it is because they understand that the story is about people and not little green men or CGI marvels. After all, it is understood that in the Aristotelian Unities, character IS plot, in that one's motivations are what ultimately drives his actions. In Taken, we aren't bombarded with fancy alien abduction scenes that cost millions to fashion in post-production, we see the struggles of identifiable human beings as they attempt to understand why this is all happening to them.
The Lost Room (2006) - Oh, but let us not discount the power of plot either. A well-crafted science fiction plot is a rare gem, indeed. We find such a beauty in the cleverly-wrought and well-directed miniseries, The Lost Room, starring Six Feet Under's Peter Krause and ER alum Julianne Margulies. When a strange event in an old roadside motel room rips a forgotten hole in the universe, the objects therein find themselves imbued with strange powers to alter reality in various ways. For forty years, various cabals have sought the items and their powers, but when a police detective loses his daughter in the room, he will stop at nothing to get her back. The series isn't without its detractors, though. Some have pointed out logic errors and plot holes, but most feel the "holes" actually resulted from the fact that this was meant to be a series. Unfortunately, it got the ax before it got the chance, leaving us to settle for what amounts to a long film. The series was executive-produced by Richard Hatem (The Dead Zone, Supernatural, Tru Calling, The Mothman Prophecies) and Laura Harkcom.
Rose Red (2002) - Rising from the mind of horror master Stephen King, Rose Red stars Nancy Travis, Julian Sands, and (among others) a young Emily Deschanel (the eponymous character on FOX's Bones) in what had to be the best haunted house work since Poltergeist. While King's story seems almost formulaic in its Legend of Hell House plot involving a group of paranormal researchers and psychics who attempt to ferret out the supernatural mysteries surrounding a sprawling mansion known as Rose Red, the master still manages to take dem old bones and give them new life. The only thing more sprawling than the ever-growing manse (it continues to build onto itself - in more than one dimension) was the depth of its back story. In fact, the barely hinted-at back story was eventually turned into a film as well. We understand in every frame of this film that King had LIVED here for quite sometime. His deep understanding of the world he has created lets us share the space intimately with the main characters. Chief among these is Prof. Joyce Reardon (played occasionally too over-the-top by Travis), a controversial and self-serving psychologist hell-bent on proving her theories correct. Countering Travis' sometimes shrill performance is the artfully subtle and thoroughly enjoyable Julian Sands who plays a powerful telepath. However, in trying to "awaken" the dormant forces at work within Rose Red, Prof. Reardon is banking it all on the powerful mind of a young autistic girl (Kimberly J. Brown).
The Triangle (2005) - Helmed by Dean Devlin (producer behind Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Librarian, Eight Legged Freaks, and the new series Leverage) and Bryan Singer (the X-Men films, Superman Returns, and FOX's House), The Triangle presents a solidly (if occasionally plodding) miniseries about a group of scientists (and one journalist?) who are charged with solving the mystery of the Triangle to the satisfaction of a billionaire shipping magnate who has lost too many vessels to the strange forces said to lie within its boundaries. What prevents this story from being another Trite-angle fiasco is its clever twist, which I won't give away. Eric Stoltz, Catherine Bell, Bruce Davison, Sam Neill and others lend good acting chops to roles that would seem campy in lesser hands. The well-crafted writing helps with that, too. Even if the we-are-three-dimensional-characters back stories seem forced at times. Lou Diamond Phillips also shows up in a B-plot role that seems pointless, relevant to nothing and headed nowhere. But all this is, ultimately, forgivable because the overall film is solid enough to weather the worst the Triangle has to offer visitors to its mysterious depths.