Posts from 26th July 2005

Jul 05

Cruise Control : PLEASE

Do You SeePost a comment • 419 views

Why is War Of The Worlds (the book) any good. Tom points out the catastrophist nature of it here, and it is this which has been regularly cited. The Orson Welles radio drama is never lauded for its exciting plot developments or ending, but more for the suckers who panicked and took it to be an actual invasion. This piece of radio history is important: it marked the first nail in the coffin of media trust. But not because anyone listened to the end.

War Of The Worlds is based on a trick. A pretty good trick, both radio and book, but both tricks you cannot do again. The radio version fooled people that it was reality. The book points out man’s hubris: that mankind can do nothing to stop these creatures, but bacteria can. Problem is, when you know the trick, you won’t be fooled again. Maybe it does not hurt to know the ending of a film before you go in (maybe – hmm) but if you know that the characters you are watching will have zero effect on the ending then the watching becomes curiously dislocated.

So I go into the cinema of Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds with a heavy heart. Not because they did not show it to reviewers. If anything this might be because they may have a trick of their own. A completely different plot to Wells? It would certainly be consistent with the history of WOTW. A few more tricks? But there is only one trick that would have really worked, and a trick that the casting of Tom Cruise ruled out. The only way to have made War Of The Worlds anything more than diverting would have been to have killed off Cruises character in the first half hour.

This is not just a dislike of TC coming to the fore. Consider it. This film is predicated on the unstoppable alien force ultimately being stopped by something not made by man. All we know about it is Tom Cruise is in it. Hence, unstoppabg machine kills “hero”, who turns out not to be hero cos the little guys (bacteria) did the job for him*.

Instead we got a tedious film where Cruise is a rubbish Dad who comes through, and no-one he knows dies. Some catastrophe. The film tries to show what invasion is like to the ordinary man, but Cruise is not an ordinary man EVEN WHEN HE IS PLAYING ONE. This is clearly the case even in WOTW because despite acting like a knob all the way throught he film, his family still survives. And he gets to kill an alien: Yah-boo sucks! As did War Of The Worlds.

*This kind of plot twist was attempted by the film Executive Decision, which bumps off Steven Seagal** in the first twenty minutes. Executive Decision fails because who is left also includes another action movie hero: Kurt Russell, who despite wearing glasses, is clearly the macho goto guy).

**One of Stevenb Seagal’s next roles is the wonderfully titled Cock Puncher in the Untitled Onion Movie Project. I assume an Area Man Is Eagerly Awaiting it, if no-one else is.

Expectations: John Wyndham

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 314 views

(I had the idea a while ago of using blogs to talk about my expectations of something before I read/heard/etceteraed it. This would, I thought, be an interesting reference point once I had, uh, consummated my whatevers with it. It might also be awfully boring to read. Hope not, eh?)

My mother read John Wyndham books – Triffids, Krakens, Lichens et al. – and no other science fiction. When I asked her about this she said that John Wyndham books weren’t science fiction. Which reminded me of a bit of doggerel Brian Aldiss quoted –

“SFs no good, they howl until we’re deaf
But this looks good! Well then, it’s not SF”

But Aldiss also didn’t seem to think of Wyndham as ‘real’ sci-fi. In his Billion Year Spree, BA describes JW as a “cosy catastrophe” writer. A sub-genre which seems to bear the same kind of relationship to proper meaty speculative fic as the much-derided ‘English murder’ story does to the crime novel.

What happens in cosy catastrophes is this: a Bad Thing happens to destroy or otherwise upset civil society, specifically middle-class English society. The protagonists then have to struggle for survival, a process which generally involves other middle-class English people and at least one inevitable military lunatic. The book ends with some promise of normality.

There are two basic things you can do with a catastrophe novel. You can use it to demonstrate the fragility of society, or you can use it to show the resilience of man in extreme circumstances. An ur-text for catastrophic fiction is The War Of The Worlds, of course, which takes the pessimistic approach. Cosy catastrophe, I’m led to expect, is more optimistic. So I wonder about the extent to which Wyndham fits this template – how far away from normal are we at the end of things?

(Catastrophe fiction can also be Dire Warnings – vague jeremiads about the greed of meddling man experimenting with what he oughtn’t. I am not sure Wyndham falls into this category – though in the Day of the Triffids at least, he convincingly demonstrates that society is vulnerable to cultivating man-eating plants and then being collectively blinded by meteors).

So what are my expectations? Well-observed character pieces with a smattering of the fantastic for plot motion and titillation, I guess. Time to go down the bookshop and find out…

Sometimes entries just write themselves…

Pumpkin PublogPost a comment • 358 views

Despite my love of all things ale-y I have never made it to the Great British Beer Festival, mainly out of laziness rather than solely due to my disdain for CAMRA. Clearly Thursday is out of the question though, “just a bit of fun” or not, they are called tw@ h@s for a reason…

Also, is this anyway to celebrate what would have been the queen mum’s (gawd bless ‘er) 105th birthday? I imagine Youngs will be pulling out of the event in protest…

The Descent Of Woman

Do You SeePost a comment • 459 views

A few things to say about The Descent, the mostly terrific Brit horror film by Neil Marshall.

a) He knows what he thinks is scary and he sticks to it. Mainly he thinks quickly stabbing people in the eye is scary. He is of course right.

b) Initially it seemed that having an all female group would neatly sidestep the “Last girl” phenomenon of horror movies, where it is easy to spot which one will survive. Unfortunately from minute one we have a character given much more backstory than the rest so we know that she might at least stick around longer.

c) That said, Marshall is a dab hand at knocking up tiny bits of characterisation to make you like the other characters, and knows that killing off sympathetic ones can really hurt.

d) I jumped much more at this than any film in quite some time.

e) Is the ending disappointing? Initially yes. Later not so much. But I wonder how much control Marshall had over it. (I would imagine a lot). There are interesting ambiguities, but perhaps too many.

f) Less is more sometimes in scripts, and here a few well acted hints go a long way.

g) He should have stuck to his guns, and made it a worthy counterpoint to The Thing. With the exception of the opening sequence, this is a horror movie without any men in it at all.