The Movie Art of Syd Mead

syd1Here’s a timely arrival, considering it’s clearly Blade Runner week here- Titan Book’s The Movie Art of Syd Mead. It’s a large-format, full-colour hardback totaling something like 256 pages, covering all of Mead’s work on movies over the past few decades, with the inevitable meat of the book (pages 88 – 153) concerned with his most famous project, Blade Runner.

I must say, I’m surprised to find there are pieces here I have never seen before, and others rarely printed, and even the pre-production paintings so familiar over the years are (mostly) printed from great scans and often spread over two pages, unveiling new details. (There is one painting, for Sebastian’s apartment, that is only printed at half-page size and looks to be from an older, inferior scan from the others, which likely explains its reduced size). There are, surprisingly, a few pieces actually missing so its is by no means complete, though the rarities/’new’ pieces are consolation.

For Blade Runner fans, this is a great opportunity to obtain a pretty definitive collection of Syd Mead’s sketches and paintings for the film. If ever a film deserved an ‘art of’ book, it was Blade Runner, and I know there have been a few attempts to get such a work published over the years but various rights issues nixed them. Considering Mead’s importance to the film, I guess this book manages to complete half of such a project (a ‘proper’ art of book would also need the matte paintings, the Ridleygrams, the storyboards etc). In any case, it’s a wonderful way to rediscover Mead’s Blade Runner artwork with most of it all in one place- the omissions are a little annoying, but I suppose they may be due to some pieces being in the hands of private collectors and/or the available scans not being good enough for inclusion (oh, oh- that doesn’t mean a ‘Movie Art of Syd Mead: The Final Cut’ will be due in a few years? It’d almost be poetic considering the many different versions of the film itself).

It even has a surprise at the end- a few pieces that Mead completed for Blade Runner 2049, for which he did designs for the film’s Las Vegas setting. I had no idea that Mead was in any way involved in the new movie. Incidentally, Blade Runner 2049 is getting its own ‘art-of’ book, currently due before the end of this month (conveniently delayed so as to avoid spoilers around the film’s release). So I guess it trumps the original film in that way at least (actually, it’s also getting a soundtrack release too so…).

Anyway, barring the odd omissions it’s a great book. I’d have appreciated a bit more text/ Mead commentary but that’s just being a bit picky, the artwork is the real draw and the reproductions are pretty great. It’s just over £20 at Amazon currently so well worth it.

 

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1982

As I write this, 35 years ago.

Half a lifetime ago I guess. I was sixteen.

I remember, walking with a group of friends (most of whom I have not seen in decades- in that pre-social media era freindships had a habit of splintering off forever,  lives spinning off like shattered shards of glass). We were walking to another’s house on the other side of our council estate, to play Dungeons and Dragons (we were RPG-junkies for a few years back then). I remember walking down a street as we made our way across, talking about Blade Runner, thinking about the film’s year of 2019. Worked out how many years ahead it was, how old I would be in that year. A time so long-distant to a sixteen-year-old! 2019 was some incredibly far-off shore, a distant alien landmark, way past that other notable year, 2001, that figured so highly in our geek estimations.

It’s odd to consider that Kubrick’s special year was such a landmark to my generation and those before us-  2001: A Space Odyssey! Those very words were exciting, powerful, they carried some kind of arcane meaning. People now, kids, likely look back on it as just any other date, just another old movie. For us it was something bigger than us, something evocative of a space-faring future ambition. We had visions of returning to the moon, going to Mars. Even in 1982 it all seemed a matter of when, not if.

In hindsight, we were pretty stupid. But 1982, 35 years ago, it was another world.

1982 was a year for other worlds. Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, Runequest, Gamma World. Well, I could go on and on about those RPG days. Back when the acronym TSR meant so much, Gary Gygax was some kind of genius, and Games Workshop was a gateway to incredible places- each of us of our group would pick a game system and create adventures we would later gather to play.  I ran a campaign titled Shadow World using the AD&D rules that went on for years. I still have books and folders of work I wrote for it, up in my loft- it was such a passion of mine that took so much time it’s hard to fathom now. I should have been out fooling around with girls but instead was inside my room dreaming up dark dungeons and evil sorcerers. Well, either that or reading or painting.

I read so much back then- Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert E Howard…

1982, Arthur C Clarke was still alive and writing, as was Ray Bradbury. Frank Frazetta was still alive. John Buscema and Gil Kane and Gene Colan and so many others I grew up with were still working in comics. I was reading 2000 AD in those days, the comic still in its prime. 1982 was the year they ran the 26-issue Apocalypse War saga in the Judge Dredd strip. Each week after reading each installment I was trading comments with my mate Andy in the halls of our secondary school. Block Mania, East Meg One, War Marshall Kazan, Stubb guns, 400 million dead... it was some glorious soap opera, a comicstrip punk-Charles Dickens that unfolded each week, and we would marvel and moan at the various turns of fate as the saga progressed.

I remember the threat of global nuclear armageddon was very real, so that Apocalypse War storyline seemed very pertinent. We actually went to war that year, an old-fashioned war: Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and we sent an armada to those small islands thousands of miles away that no-one had even heard of. I remember the daily updates on the news.

1982 was a very good year for films. Its why this blog has its name, for one thing.

Blade Runner, ET, Poltergeist, Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, The Thing, Mad Max 2, Conan.People often refer to it as the ‘summer of 1982’ and of course it was if you were American, but in other countries that incredible summer of genre films was spread out across the year, as releases were not so immediately global then. Wrath of Khan was here in July, The Thing in August (what madness was that?), Blade Runner and Poltergeist in September, Tron in October, and finally E.T. not until December when likely everyone had already seen it on pirate VHS. Video piracy-  how I first saw The Thing and Conan and Mad Max 2 (and The Exorcist, too, that Autumn).

I could never get my head around being able to watch films on-demand at the press of a switch. Even today it seems a bit weird, a bit like sorcery. In 1982 of course it was a slice of the future, but always over someone else’s house; at home we couldn’t afford a VHS machine until we rented one in late 1983.  Those dark Autumn nights of 1982 when we gathered over a freinds house when his parents were out and watched those VHS copies, they linger in my head forever, so intense it almost seems like yesterday. I giggled like some kind of idiot on first watching The Thing (it just seemed so extreme, in hindsight it was probably nervous laughter, not funny ‘ha-ha’ laughter, but I hadn’t seen Dawn of the Dead at that point). I detested Conan for not really being honest to the Howard books (though I made peace with it soon enough on subsequent viewings) and I remember being gobsmacked by the wild kinetics of Mad Max 2.

Backtrack a few months to Easter, 1982, and Tron: I remember playing an RPG over a freinds house and we paused to watch Disneytime on his portable telly. Imagine five or six of us enthralled when they showed a clip of Tron: it was the Lightcycle chase, and this little portable b&w television was suddenly a window into the future. Hell, I was still playing videogames on my Atari VCS and they were nothing like the cgi being thrown around in Tron. We had seen nothing quite like it, it was like something that arrived out of nowhere.

It was like that back then. Films did seem to come from nowhere. I remember every month going into the city to the specialist bookshops, reading all the latest movie news in the latest issues of Starlog, Fantastic Films, Starburst, Cinefantastique, Cinefex. Marvelling at the latest pictures, reading the latest previews/reviews/interviews. There was no internet, films were spoiled less and information harder to come by. Trailers were rarely seen (not available at a whim as they are now).

When I saw Blade Runner that September, I had never seen a single scene beforehand, hardly any pictures. I do remember a film-music programme on the radio on which I heard the sequence of Deckard meeting Tyrell- that was my only experience of that film beforehand. I wonder if that was why the film had such an impact on me back then? Nowadays we see so much, learn so much, before we even see a film. It steals the surprise somehow. It’s so hard to avoid these days.

Back in 1982, films kept their surprises.

 

 

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

stigmata“She was a redhead and he liked redheads; they were either outrageously ugly or almost supernaturally attractive.” 

Thankfully I still have quite a number of Philip K Dick novels to read; the guy was nothing if not prolific, with a huge body of work. Reading a PKD novel or story for the first time is a very welcome treat, but it can prove to be addictive. Once you’ve experienced PKD’s rather unique mindset, you find its rather seductive, and as you’ve finished one novel or short story, its all too easy to reach for another. Another ‘fix’. Which is an interesting analogy considering that The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which I’ve just read and was originally published back in 1965, is a story partly about addiction and drug-induced hallucinated alternate worlds. And God. And aliens. Well, God as an alien, infecting the realities of those who try the new drug that this God has brought from deep space. Sounds odd? Welcome to the mind of that genius visionary Philip K Dick.

The funny thing about PKD, is that its easy to get the impression he is making up the story as he goes- its not often that I ever get the feeling anything is really planned out or reasoned before he wrote it. I may well be wrong, but it does seem that he simply takes a proposition or turn of thought and runs with it, sees where it goes. There’s a sense of chaos under everything, as if anything could happen next. One of the best things about his stories is when he indeed pulls the rug from under you, suddenly twists the story into a new direction. Usurps your expectations and, most of the time, your sense of reality. You think its one thing, and then it turns into another.

stig2In the case of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, you find yourself wondering if what is happening to the characters is ‘real’ or just another hallucination, like dreams within dreams, layers of hallucinatory experiences. Time has little meaning- someone under the influence of the drug might be unconscious for just minutes in the ‘real world’ but years or even decades could go by in the strange hallucinatory world he/she might find themselves in – indeed, even trapped in, as Palmer Eldritch/God proves to be rather dangerous and threatening in his/its own attempt at survival.  Is reality being infected by God, as he manifests himself everywhere like some kind of virus, a multitude of Palmer Eldritch’s, or is it just another fantasy? Is it God that has infected Eldritch or some alien approximation? I often think PKD is always writing on the edge, reconsidering where he is going, threatening to go racing off in some other path entirely on a whim. It makes his stories rather challenging but also greatly rewarding.

There’s certainly no way there will ever be a film based on The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. But I’d love to see one.

 

My Favourite Web-Slinger

spidey 60Go back some 43 years, and early on a Saturday morning you’d find me lying awake in bed waiting for the familiar noise of a delivery through the letterbox. It was a regular routine, every Saturday through most of my childhood. The rest of the house would be asleep, enjoying a lie-in at the start of the weekend, and I’d usually be awake, light dimly streaming through the curtains, waiting for that noise. I’d hear the swing of the letterbox flap, the sound of the morning newspaper and my Spider-Man comic being pushed through and finally falling to the hallway floor with a dull thud. With that, I’d get out of bed and silently, oh so carefully (woe I woke my parents!) creep down the stairs trying to avoid the creaky spots, go down to the front door, pick up the latest issue of my favorite comic and return upstairs for a read.

I remember how crushing it would be, those rare weeks that only the newspaper was delivered, and my comic missing/delayed. Upset my whole weekend. Was I ever that young, life ever so simple, days so easily crushed?

Spider-Man Comics Weekly was a UK b&w comic that reprinted the American original The Amazing Spider-Man- the first issue of the UK reprint came out in February 1973 (free Spider-man mask that didn’t really resemble the free gift in the tv ads), and it continued into the ‘eighties. I think I read it until about 1980; sometime after the original mag’s Ross Andru run the quality seemed to fall off dramatically and I’d finally grown out of it- remember Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns were several years away, but I’d already been reading 2000 AD and enjoying it’s harder, more grown-up stories. But during the 1970s that weekly ran through all the Steve Ditko run, the John Romita period and into the Ross Andru years- what an astonishing run that was, with the advantage of weekly installments racing through the original monthly run of four-colour comics.

omni 3Why do I mention all of this? Well, the other day my copy of The Amazing Spider-Man Marvel Omnibus Vol.3 was delivered. This fantastic book reprints issues 68 – 104 of the original monthly edition. This period is probably my favourite period of all the Web-Slinger’s adventures. While I will naturally always love the Steve Ditko years, it was this period, with artwork by John Romita, John Buscema (my favourite comic artist) and Gil Kane, that seemed to feature the strip all grown-up and sophisticated. The artwork was wonderful, and the stories brilliant- the Kingpin, the Green Goblin, Dr Octopus, the ‘drugs’ issues, the death of Captain Stacey… these were the issues that blew me away, and being able to own them in this luxury hardcover is like being ten years old again.  Indeed, sometimes I think we never really grow up. I cannot express the joy of reading strips I have not read in decades and yet remember as if I only read them yesterday, they were so burned into my subconscious. I think I forgot how much of a big deal/real love they were to me, those Marvel comics in the 1970s, and of course, to be able to read them in their original colour format, with the original letters pages, is something of a wonder.

So now I have the three Spider-Man Omnibus volumes, and all those original issues from issue 1 through to 104 with annuals etc in between. Hopefully volume 4 will follow in a few years, with the death of Gwen Stacey and through to the Ross Andru era. One day I’ll sit down and read them through and it’ll be like some kind of microcosm of my childhood. But this book, volume 3, is really something special- I’m sure my eyes must light up with the joy of my childhood self as I read it. No, we really don’t ever grow up, not if we’re lucky.

My REH Bookshelf Pt.1

Last week I received the three most recent Robert E Howard books from the REH Foundation Press, so I thought it timely to post some pictures of my Robert E Howard collection. I’ve been collecting REH books since 1978, and I think it is true to say that REH fans have never had it as good as they do now, thanks to the efforts of the folks at the REHFP. There is still, and always will be, a unique thrill to receiving a box from them postmarked from the post office at Cross Plains, Texas, a special place in Howard lore.

reh1So here’s my first photograph, and this is pretty much my collection from the last few years and it clearly demonstrates how much I have benefited from the REHFP. While many of these books contain stories I already owned in earlier books, they also contain a wealth of fragments and drafts, and informative essays. And of course they are handsomely collected in hardback format in very limited editions, usually only 200 copies. I can never figure out how REH fandom is so limited that these books don’t seem to sell-out. They aren’t cheap, but when I think back to the bad old days of buying paperbacks these are more that worth the investment, and will hopefully last the rest of this REH readers life.

Highlights are almost too numerous too mention. The Collected Poetry is a hugely important volume, and the Collected Letters also. If these were the only books that the REHFP had ever printed, that would have been more than enough to satisfy collectors. In all honesty though I adore all of these books and only wish I could make the time to properly re-read them all enough. I often think that if ever I manage to retire one day I will enjoy the fruits of my collecting by spending years reading and re-reading these volumes -I only hope I can keep my marbles in order to do so! But I’m certain in the meantime I’ll give it a good go whenever I have time- currently I’m reading through the Breckinridge Elkins books. At any rate, though their frequency of books is somewhat haphazard, I’m certain that the REHFP have yet more books in the pipeline.

One anecdote I must make- my copy of the Collected Poetry was actually delivered across town as the address hadn’t been written properly on the package. As it wasn’t tracked, I had no idea, but thankfully it was delivered to me by the recipient of the package who had subsequently managed to track me down. I don’t think I ever had opportunity to thank him enough, as I was quite bewildered when he turned up at my door late one summer evening with the box. I’m really not usually that lucky a person -the ghost of Howard was looking over me that night!

This second photograph is a sample of the REH volumes I’ve collected over the past few decades-

reh2Now this picture contains a few real finds that REH collectors out there will likely recognise and which will mean nothing at all to most everyone else, so please bear with me. First is The Last Celt, which I bought from Forbidden Planet back in, 1985 I think, on a rare trip down to London. I couldn’t really afford the book but I couldn’t resist it. Its a hugely influential book about REH, at one point the bible of REH collecting. Written and compiled by the late Glenn Lord, who was the most important REH fan there ever was, its a cornerstone of my collection. Glenn was kind enough to reply to an email from me many years ago.

Next along the shelf are, like The Last Celt,  a number of REH books from Donald M Grant, one of the most important publishers of REH material, certainly in the 1970s/1980s- the highlight of these is the rare Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, a semi-autobiographical novel by Howard. Another favourite from my collection is a book about Howard rather than one by him- a memoir by Novalyne Price Ellis titled One Who Walked Alone. She was a friend of Howard and was the only girl he ever dated or had any kind of relationship with, and as she had literary leanings herself, she kept journals and diaries of their times together. This book is a particularly candid, first-hand document about Howard and formed the basis of a later film. Remarkably vivid, reading this book is like stepping into a time machine and the closest one can get to meeting Howard.

Then we come upon the expensive section of my collection- back before the REHFP rescued Howard collectors, the British publisher Wandering Star instigated an ultimately too-ambitious project of luxury limited editions. The books proved a contentious issue in REH fandom, but I well remember my thrill back when they first came out and I’m grateful to everyone involved in the (ultimately abortive) project. Having had to put up with cheap paperbacks and those old second-hand Donald M Grant editions that I could get hold of, new, luxury hardbacks of curated Howard material were a godsend. I remember picking up a flyer in Forbidden Planet announcing the three-volume Conan books. It was like winning some kind of lottery, it was so exciting! The first Wandering Star book was the Solomon Kane book, lavishly illustrated and bound, complete in slipcase with prints and a cd of some recited Kane material.  I bought that from the old Andromeda Bookshop in Birmingham- it was an expensive purchase but I never regretted it.

Further along the shelf you will see my copy of the Neville Spearman edition of Skull-Face Omnibus. In the history of REH publishing, this is one of the important volumes, originally published in 1946 by Arkham House. Dating from 1975, I bought this copy of the Neville Spearman edition from Andromeda Bookshop in 1983. Although I had bought some Conan paperbacks years earlier, it was this book that truly sealed my fate regards collecting REH books. The typeface is so small just reading a paragraph now is enough to induce a major headache, but fortunately all the books material has since been reprinted elsewhere and more legibly.

A few more Donald M Grant editions follow, and L Sprague de Camp’s rather inflammatory biography of Howard that I bought for £8.75 in 1986 (I know, because I have the receipt slipped inside the book), back when I was deep into buying the many REH  paperbacks of the time. I don’t have any of those paperbacks at hand to display, as they are stored up in boxes in the loft- but there were lots of them.

Finally (for now) on the shelf are two deluxe reprint volumes of the Roy Thomas/Barry Windsor-Smith Conan comics that pretty much started my whole affair with REH when I first read the weekly reprints here in the UK in 1975. So in a way they bring things full circle.

I have some other REH books I haven’t photographed here -the Bison books from several years ago, the Del Rey books based on unpublished Wandering Star volumes, the aforementioned paperback pile from the 1970s-1980s boxed away and several volumes of critical works about Howard’s work, as well as a number of comic collections from Dark Horse. Plenty there for an eventual Pt.2 indeed,  but what I have featured here is pretty much the bulk of my collection. I certainly don’t consider myself an hardcore REH collector but it has become something of a lengthy fascination that somehow defines me- any other REH collectors care to share details of their collections?

 

The Princess Diarist

carrie1Anyone looking to learn any real details/minutiae of the filming of the original Star Wars trilogy are likely to be somewhat disappointed by this book. “I don’t remember much about things like the order we shot scenes in or who I got to know first. Nor did anyone mention that one day I would be called upon to remember any of this long-ago experience,” Carrie writes, warning Star Wars fans to manage their expectations before dropping the Carrison bombshell. The bitter truth is that she was writing this book some forty years after the event, and in 1976 she was just nineteen years old and Star Wars was just another movie, really. Important to her career and a lucky break, but hardly the phenomenon it would later become upon release.

So anyone looking for anything as in-depth or fascinating as Bob Balaban’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary should look elsewhere or regauge their expectations. The actual section reprinting her diary from the time is pretty dim, juvenile nineteen-year old girl stuff, random thoughts and poetry full of doubts and emotions about her affair with Harrison Ford and nothing at all concerned with her actual on-set experiences. The remainder (and majority) of the book is a sort of contemporary rambling rumination looking back, at the few things she really can remember, which is pleasant and informative at times, but its all written in a ‘stream of consciousness’ manner.  Like a rambling conversation, shifting around and running off into all sorts of odd corners of whatever was occurring to her as she wrote it. Its annoying and fun and endearing and and enlightening and empty-headed too at times.

A poignant fact that I didn’t realise before, was that she was good freinds with Miguel Ferrer and that it was Miguel who she called up to read the Star Wars script with her so she could rehearse lines for her audition. Imagine my surprise reading this, knowing that only recently both had passed away, within weeks of each other, Carrie in December and Miguel in January. I tried to imagine both of them forty years before, sitting in Carrie’s bedroom rehearsing lines from Star Wars, whole lives and many films ahead of each of them, and the awful odds of both of them dying within weeks of each other all those decades later. Hollywood is a small world, I guess.

Everyone, of course, must know by now of this book’s major revelation, and what likely got sales of the book going (at least until she passed away so suddenly), which was her affair with Harrison Ford during the shooting of Star Wars. A secret both had kept for the all the years since, Carrie decided it was time to let it into the open at last- if only perhaps to justify the book itself, considering how scant other details are of the shooting of the movie. It probably doesn’t cast Harrison in too good a light; an actor in his mid-thirties leaving a wife and two sons back home to shoot a weird sci-fi film abroad, having an affair with his nineteen-year-old co-star. Maybe this sort of thing happens frequently on-set, I don’t know, but it doesn’t really seem to gel with the Harrison Ford portrayed to the public over the decades. Carrie seems to know, even in 1976, that its just an on-set affair to Harrison and nothing serious, him being emotionally detached even if, as her diaries attest, she was quite smitten. At one point Harrison seems quite horrified when it dawns on him that she isn’t really the confident and experienced young woman she pretends to be in her public persona, although at that point it’s too late. In anycase, once filming was over Harrison returned home to his family and the affair was over.

To be honest, that stuff doesn’t interest me, other than the insight into how the two of them would meet in a pub to continue their affair and be totally unknown to anyone else there. Its weird, looking back on a time when Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were just ordinary people unknown to anyone.

The most interesting parts of the book are when she discusses living with Star Wars and its fans for all the decades after 1976. Its an enlightening glimpse of what she and Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford (and yes, George Lucas, too) would go through for the rest of their lives, and is quite cautionary. The strangeness of being subject to so much adoration and fascination, of being caught up in the cultural phenomenon that was Star Wars and it’s almost religious stature amongst fans; “…this little movie leaked out of the theatre, poured off the screen, affected some people so deeply that they required endless talismans and artifacts to stay connected with it”, she writes. They played with dolls of her, watched and rewatched that same movie over and over. Cued up for hours, decades later, to have photos autographed by her, names kids after her. She would be famous for playing Princes Leia for the rest of her life, becoming a cultural icon, bad hair-do and all. That summer of 1976 shooting Star Wars in London would forever alter everything afterwards- how ironic that that nineteen-year old girl would be so totally fixated in her diaries on her conflicted emotions regards her affair with her co-star, as if that film was secondary. It was secondary, it was ‘just’ a movie, after all.  It just sneaked up on her afterwards when it became ‘Star Wars’ and changed everything.

So its a slight, mildly diverting read. Yes, its disappointing that it lacks any real details but it does serve, in an odd way, in giving a sense of perspective to things. To those of us who grew up with it, Star Wars was an important and sensational part of our lives. But for those who made it, well, it clearly wasn’t such a big deal and they had no idea what was coming, and it’s interesting to read how Carrie Fisher, at least, tried to deal with it afterwards. It’s a curious insight regards her relationship with that level of fame and the fans and indication for what it must have been like for those others caught up in it.

 

 

The Reels of Fate

manin12017.10: The Man in the High Castle Season Two (Amazon VOD)

The Man in the HIgh Castle, based on Philip K Dick’s Hugo-award winning book, has a killer premise. Its the early ‘sixties, and we are in a world in which the Nazi’s won the race to create the Atomic Bomb and in so doing won the Second World War. After the Germans dropped the bomb on Washington DC,  America capitulated and the country was divided between the Germans in the West and the Japanese holding the Eastern seaboard. Hitler is still alive but his health is failing, and various Nazi factions are positioning for power ahead of the political chaos that would follow the Führer’s death. The alliance/truce between the Germans and the Japanese is fragile, threatening to collapse into war, a war the Japanese cannot possibly win as they still do not have the technology to make an atomic bomb. Meanwhile, strange reels of film displaying events that have not happened, some in which the city of San Francisco is nuked, some in which the Allies won the war instead of the Axis, are being secretly distributed. What do they mean? Where are they from? Are they alternate pasts, alternate futures? Why does Hitler collect and study them? Who is the Man in the High Castle who has allegedly authored them? How can the films be ‘real’?

I had my doubts, but I have to admit, with season two, this series has really hit its stride. After the gripping pilot, season one took a long time to find its way and didn’t totally convince me, but this season picks up most of the arcs from the first series and takes them on to what turns out to be a very satisfying conclusion. Indeed, if the show had been cancelled (thankfully it hasn’t, a third season has been commissioned) then I must confess I’d have been pretty satisfied how things finally panned out. Most of the major threads are resolved, more questions answered than you might expect, and the stodgy pace of the first season replaced with a fairly swift run towards its finale. In some ways it seems to mirror how the series Caprica turned out, but from a different perspective- Caprica was one long season split into two, aired over two years by its network, the first half suffering from a dull pace from world-building and setting up arcs, the second half picking things up and resolving them at a better pace, but slaughtered by having a twelve-month gap in between, whereas The Man in the High Castle is two short seasons made over two years that forms a whole.

main3Its nice to see a series actually deliver rather than stretch things out further and tease viewers over multiple seasons. We see Hitler’s sickness progress to its inevitable conclusion, the conspiracy amongst his Nazi followers reach fruition, the threat of global conflict between the Axis superpowers reach its zenith, and a tragic twist that likely brings the arc regarding John Smith’s sons illness to an unfortunate end. Its the repercussions of these that will follow in season three, no doubt, rather than simply a continuation of them. Add to that some delightful new teases in the final coda and the second season ends with some style. Much improved over season one,  I’d urge anybody who gave up on the show to return to it- I do think much of season two causes the viewer to reconsider season one in hindsight; it informs much of what may have seemed wrong with that first seasons pace. Had the two seasons been an old-fashioned 22-episode single season it would have been a very solid whole, and I’d advise anybody starting the show to watch the two seasons together.

Its also refreshing to watch a modern show that doesn’t resort to nudity and violence to justify its worth or gain notoriety from such. In many ways The Man in the High Castle is an old-fashioned drama and quite reserved. Violence is very restrained and much of the conflict is from the opposing viewpoints and political ideals. Its very much a drama about ideas, and in so doing remains faithful to Philip K Dick’s works. There’s a number of ‘shifts’ in reality that honours themes prevalent in much of the authors output, disorienting viewer and character alike. Its wonderful that we actually end up rooting for the bad guys to save the world, undermining preconceived notions about whose side we are on and the story we expect the series to be- those same bad guys who save the world are still monsters. And yes, although season two offers resolutions to many of the first two season’s arcs, plenty of mysteries remain.

Its also a very unsettling work- there is something very nervy about an ordinary-looking scene, almost like something out of Mad Men, suddenly invaded by characters in Nazi uniform, or the Nazi banners with the Swastika billowing in the American breeze and dominating the New York skyline. Likewise the evil ideology of the Reich and its perceived superiority of its Master Race and genetics is quite harrowing, particularly in some of the offhand comments made by characters- things that might be lost if the viewer isn’t paying due attention. A worldview and alternate history is slowly established, and the world is increasingly horrific- not in a brutal, in-your-face kind of way, but in a subtle, almost insidious way. Shots of Gestapo officers looking out of panoramic windows on to the New Berlin of Hitler’s dreams -realised with quite impressive photo realism and clarity by the shows effects teams- are the stuff of nightmares.

manin2The show isn’t perfect, but any faults I had with the first season have mostly been fixed with this second season. The scripts are more focused, the acting is excellent and the music score really quite sublime. Its very much improved and I’m really looking forward to season three. I only wish it might turn up on Blu-ray sometime; the show deserves a wider audience than it is likely getting on Amazon and I’d appreciate the opportunity to own it on disc (the possibility of commentaries are intriguing to say the least). Above all else though, this show deserves a bigger audience- more people should have the opportunity to see it, something that can be said of many television programmes these days.

 

 

Villeneuve’s Dune

dune1Ah yes, I’m liking the sound of that. Legendary Pictures has confirmed that Dennis Villeneuve has signed to direct their upcoming  remake of Dune. Well, here the term ‘remake’ seems a little wrong- this won’t be a remake of the David Lynch movie, but rather a fresh adaptation of the Frank Herbert classic space opera novel. Dune is one of my very favourite sci-fi novels; its got a huge, far-future scope, its at turns mysterious and familiar and rather terrifying too. I know many don’t feel it has aged at all well (it wears its 1960s hippie/counter-culture credentials loud and proud) but I love it, and you know, maybe its time has finally come. The David Lynch film has terrific art direction and looks impressively strange and other-worldly, but was always hampered by the effects of its era and its limited running-time. I think film-makers can get away with a three-hour film now, and a longer director’s cut is so normal on home formats that an eventual four-hour cut likely inevitable- and of course with cgi imagery now anything is possible.

If it gets made that is. Too many of these projects (and quite a few involving Dune, including attempts from  Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott) have fallen through over the years, so this announcement might yet lead to nothing. I’m sure the box-office performance of Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 will have some impact on its progress. Have to give some credit to Villeneuve though, he’s got some bottle- first he takes on the sequel to one of the most iconic sci-fi films ever made, and then he jumps into making one of the great sci-fi classics. And both after shooting a sci-fi flick titled Arrival that gets several Oscar nominations. Wow. Eat your heart out James Cameron, there’s a new genre kid on the block.

And he could be making Dune next. Pinch me.

The Expanse: Season One (2016)

ex32016.46:  The Expanse – Season One (Blu-ray)

Blade Runner was originally not intended to have a post-credits crawl-up setting up its scenario- indeed at one point it wasn’t going to be set in any particular place or have any particular date. Instead it was going to drop the audience into its world and leave them working to make sense of it all, but the studio and/or film-makers got cold feet, so we got the crawl up and the ‘Los Angeles, November 2019’ legend that doesn’t really work at all (indeed, it never really did even back in 1982). Maybe they were right to do it, but even in 1982 I missed that brave conceit of letting the audience do some work. The fact that they maintained that crawl-up and setting for the Final Cut version of 2007 quite mystifies me and is the one negative about that otherwise definitive version of the film.

So why do I mention that film again, in a post talking about a new sci-fi tv show? Well, The Expanse does have a short text intro, but otherwise it bravely throws the audience into its remarkable future world and simply leaves the audience to it. It’s a bold gambit for a new series and one that, for me, pays off handsomely. This show refuses to hold your hand; you are thrown into the 23rd Century and its likely four episodes before you really ‘get’ what the show is and the story it is telling. Before that, you are left to it, trying to make sense of the societies and rival factions and who might be good, who might be bad, and whats really going on with the derelict Scopuli.

Bizarrely still not picked up by any broadcaster here in the UK, even now, several months after it aired in the States, The Expanse is the  best science fiction show I have seen in years. With all the channels we have over here now, it is a complete mystery that this show hasn’t found a broadcaster yet. Weary of waiting for the world to make some sense, a few weeks ago I caved in and imported the Blu-ray, surely a sign that some broadcaster was about to announce UK airdates (typically as soon as I got it through the letterbox). And yet no, not even my purchase of the blu-ray set has mystically triggered anything, but you can’t say I haven’t tried. What gives?

ex3My all-time favourite science fiction series is the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series from awhile back. Which at the time surprised me no end, as I wasn’t a fan of the original, am weary of reboots in general and didn’t expect anything special at all. Of course I was completely wrong  -this was one reboot that was a total success. It was gritty and realistic, had brilliant production design, great writing, a fantastic cast and likely the most thematically complex score of any television series, ever. It ran for five great years and actually managed a deeply satisfying end (for me, anyway, although I know some fans were put off by it).

With The Expanse, the SyFy channel is trying to repeat the success and critical clout  that it managed with BSG. The odd thing is, The Expanse doesn’t really resemble BSG much at all- instead, it really harkens back to Warner Bros classic space opera Babylon 5.

I was a B5 nut back when it was first aired. It consumed my life for the five years it was on, right up to a series finale that, yes, brought tears to my eyes. B5 was an underdog right from the start- a low-budget, indie-sci fi epic at a time that Star Trek dominated the tv science fiction landscape.

B5 had cutting-edge CG effects that opened up the scale of what a genre tv series could be, gaining a huge canvas for its space opera of alien politics, ancient evil and intergalactic war. Writer/producer J. Michael Straczynski had a five-year plan, a vision for each season and the arc of an overall story, and barring a few detours he managed to tell the story he wanted to tell. The ambition of the thing is pretty amazing to this day and it remains a remarkable achievement, and it is only the troubles involving some cast departures and a poor season five (precipitated by JMS being told he had to complete the saga by close of season four and then actually getting a season five he hadn’t planned for) that weakens it compared to BSG. But B5 had moments the equal of anything before or since; moments of edge of your seat, WTF brilliance, from great character arcs to plot twists and awesome cliffhangers.

ex2Watching The Expanse, I frequently thought about B5. Its in the realistic sets, the costume design, the multi-cultural feel, the politics, the machinations of rival planets. The Expanse is everything a ‘new’ B5 would be- it’s really how B5 would look if it were made with the technology of today, albeit The Expanse doesn’t actually have any alien empires in it (as yet anyway- who knows where it is finally headed, certainly not me, as I’ve not read the books).

The simplest way to describe The Expanse, particularly as it has adopted the ten-episode series format so popular now, is that it’s a sci-fi Game of Thrones by way of Babylon 5. If that sounds interesting and worthy of your time, then you’d be right. Based on a series of books by James S.A.Corey (actually a pen name for two writers, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) the series benefits from having a solid story with a well thought-out background perhaps richer than you might expect on television. And yes, as it’s based on a series of books, there is evidently some overall masterplan for the story and where it’s going. The first season of the show is based on the first book, Leviathan Wakes, and I’m told it manages to adapt about three-quarters of it, leaving the remainder for the start of season two. It sounds odd, but people who’ve read the books seem to think the break before the end of the first book makes sense. All I know is that the end of season one left me slightly frustrated in a kind of good, “wtf happens next?!!” kind of way that has me itching to turn to the books, but I can see how it works. It leaves viewers curious and eager for more (and thank goodness there is a season two) but manages a rather neat way to close out the season that perhaps the remainder of the book lacks.

So anyway, whats it about? The Expanse is set in the 23rd Century. Humanity has colonized the solar system, but is not united like in, say, Star Trek -this is a more fractured humanity. The United Nations controls Earth, Mars is ruled by an independent military power, and the asteroid belt, home to vast resources that are vital to both Earth and Mars, is populated by working-class grunts eager to break free of what they see are their Terran/Martian oppressors. Tensions are running high as the series opens, with the three factions – “Earthers,” “Dusters,” and “Belters” – on the brink of war.

ex4The Expanse is part space opera, part detective-noir mystery, part political thriller. A young woman named Julie has disappeared, and a run-down/washout Belter detective, Joe Miller (Thomas Jane in terrific form), is assigned to the case. Miller gets drawn into a web of intrigue that spans the solar system and a conspiracy that could threaten all humanity.  The same conspiracy entangles a deep-space officer of a mining ship, James Holden (Steven Strait) whose encounter with a distress signal out at the rings of Saturn drags him and several of his crew into a chaotic series of events culminating in the deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands, and possibly igniting all-out war. As Holden tries to makes sense of it all, his fate becomes entwined with that of Miller, and the two men find themselves working together to find out what happened to Julie and why her fate is central to the entire mystery.

After an initial number of episodes that stumble a little as the show establishes its rather complex web of political machinations and rival power-groups, the series really gets going and proves to be a thrilling and fascinating watch. Indeed, that stumble at the start is actually rather welcome, as the show deliberately drops the viewer into its future-world complete with odd languages and unspoken agendas leaving the viewer having to work at making sense of it all. It is an approach I found quite refreshing, and I have stated earlier its a great move and something that immediately warmed me to the series. Indeed it’s left me keen to rewatch the show now that it all makes more sense to me.

Anyway, I’ll say no more as that would reduce ones enjoyment of the show. I only hope it gets a UK airdate sometime soon/eventually. It really deserves it and it really is strange that it hasn’t been aired here already- maybe when season two nears early in 2017 in the States something will happen. In the meantime, there is always the Blu-ray set from the States (great picture naturally but alas woefully devoid of any extras) to get your fix if the show seems interesting to you. As for me? Those books seem awfully tempting…

 

In The Heart of the Sea (2015)

heart1.jpg2016.39: In The Heart of the Sea (Blu-ray)

Back when Ron Howard’s In The Heart of the Sea was released at the cinema to lukewarm and often hostile reviews that turned me away from a planned cinema trip, I was intrigued enough by the premise to read the book by  Nathaniel Philbrick from which much of it is based. Philbrick’s excellent book examines the 19th-century Pacific whaling industry and the true story of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by a monstrous sperm whale, an event which inspired Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick. The book is a great read- gripping and horrifying in its detail, whether it be the bloody mechanics of whaling at the time or the awful act of sucking the marrow from human bones in a desperate effort to survive a horrible ordeal. That it is based on true events makes it all the more incredible- I had to wonder how anyone could make a bad movie based on it.

Well, In The Heart of the Sea may not be a truly bad movie, but neither is it the film the book deserves. I have written before of my opinion that Ron Howard is at best a competent director, and never is that truer than here. This film is functional and nothing more. It tells its story with a stupefying indifference.

In The Heart of the Sea is a film that lacks any passion,  any genuine vision, point of view or commentary. Having been so enthralled by the book, I found this to be utterly perplexing but with Howard involved perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Technically the film is fairly impressive, albeit its visuals suffering from too much colour-correction labouring its period setting (whose idea was that? It looks horrible) and reliance on sub-par CGI effects (which will age horribly, I’m sure). It is the human story, the drama, that is utterly lost here. These were real people, and their nightmarish ordeal really happened. They deserved much more than this film.

Much like last years Everest, this is a film that tries to relate events concerning several characters and by trying to tell all their stories, ultimately fails to do any of them proper service. And also like Everest, it’s a film that tries to make the nightmarish almost palatable. Everything is kept at arms length, even the moments of cannibalism, which is treated in such a trite and PG-friendly way that I found it quite appalling. This is a film that should have been a tale of greed and a barbaric industry, and of a struggle against indomitable fate with humanity pitted against a giant beast and the whims of indifferent nature. It should have been quite terrifying. At the very least, it should have been as enthralling as ‘Gravity at sea’ might sound. Maybe that was the original pitch?

Unlike the book, the film is unnecessarily bookended by sequences involving Melville searching out and recording the story from one its survivors, Thomas Nickerson, who reluctantly tells the story for money. The framing device is clumsy (indeed, it looks like something tacked onto the film in desperate reshoots) and handicaps the film, a major misstep. And the meeting never happened, so there goes any historical ‘truth’ from the very start. Its an immediate indication of where the film is headed.

The over-the-top colour correction makes everything look artificial, particularly the CGI effects, almost like it’s some kind of adult fairytale, and some of the casting is… well, its all very competent but Chris Hemsworth really has too much cinematic baggage for his casting here to really work. The guy was Thor and The Huntsman  for crying out loud, both over the top, larger-than-life heroes but this needs something more nuanced and it’s also clearly a convenient  carry-over from Howard’s previous film, Rush (in which he played a charismatic James Hunt). He doesn’t strike me as being the ‘proper’ Owen Chase that I read of in the book- rather it’s blatantly convenient, mainstream casting.

Other things irritate. The sense of the passing of time (these whaling expeditions took years) isn’t handled very well, nor the sense of claustrophobic space of these men stuck for weeks/months together without setting foot on dry land. The film-makers can’t resist dropping historical exactness for drama, such as when The Essex is crippled and sunk by the whale. In truth the ship foundered for days and the crew had to force themselves away from it knowing their only course of action- setting out in their three whaling boats with limited provisions-  was likely suicidal. The film goes all Hollywood here, with the Essex exploding into flames and the survivors narrowly escaping the conflagration whilst getting the last supplies. It’s irritating, seeing stuff and knowing it didn’t happen like that. Likewise the whale here is transformed from the roguish reality to the nemesis of Melville’s Moby Dick- actually following and further threatening the survivors on their trek to salvation. Was Howard and the rest more interested in remaking/rebooting Moby Dick than actually telling the original true story of the Essex?

I have to wonder if I dislike the film partly because of my familiarity with the book. Probably. But the film surely seems rather broken to viewers who have not read it. There is something missing- the script feels perfunctory, it lacks any insight or real point of view, the casting is uninspired and leaves many ‘stars’ with little to do, and the box-office-minded censorship that tones down the real horrors ironically bleeds out any real drama. It’s a poor effort really and just a shadow of what it should have been.