The “No, YOU’RE Crying!” Blogathon: Contact (1997)

This post is part of the “No, YOU’RE Crying!” Blogathon, hosted by ME at Moon in Gemini. Read the rest of the tear-stained posts HERE!

I’ll admit it. I’m a crier. I even cry at movies that nobody else cries at.

It’s so bad that my (at the time) 5-year-old niece turned to me during Little Women and said, “You know Beth’s not really dead, right? You know it’s just a movie, right?”

Recently my now 28-year-old (and still wise-ass) niece watched Gravity with me. During the final act of the film (which I had seen previously) I started weeping. My niece turned to me and said, “Oh, no! You’re crying because the ending of this is really sad, isn’t it?”

No, I told her. Whenever I’m in awe of spectacular filmmaking, I cry. Or great writing. Or a beautiful painting or song.

Consequently, I had a lot of movies to choose from for this blogathon. I doubt most people think of the 1997 sci-fi film Contact as a “tearjerker.” But for me, the first viewing was one of the most moving and cathartic experiences I’ve ever had at the movies.

Context matters. 1997 was a very difficult year for me. I was going through a lot of personal upheaval and change. The worst thing that happened was finding out my dad had been diagnosed with cancer. My entire family was living in another state and I felt very isolated. I think how we react to film (or art in general) is often very personal. Even if the artist(s) did not intend it, our own experiences and situation can cause a uniquely personal reaction. I had that kind of reaction watching Contact the first time.

Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis and based on the novel by Carl Sagan, concerns Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), a SETI scientist whose work is mostly focused on finding extraterrestrial life. Ellie was raised by her father Theodore (David Morse). From a young age she is fascinated by the thought of life on other worlds. Tragically, her father dies suddenly when she is still very young.

As an adult, she listens to radio emissions in hopes of finding proof of alien life. The president’s science advisor, thinking the endeavor pointless, pulls funding. Eccentric billionaire S. R. Hadden (John Hurt) funds a new project. A few years later Ellie hears a signal, which turns out to be a series of prime numbers.

Ellie and her team of scientists eventually realize that the information contained in the signal are a set of instructions for a machine that can transport one individual.

Politics, religion, and science converge as the building of the machine becomes highly controversial. Ellie hopes to be the first to go, but is rejected by a panel because she is an atheist. One of the members of the panel is Ellie’s former lover, a religious philosopher named Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) The first machine is sabotaged by religious fanatics and its occupant killed.

It turns out Ellie’s benefactor, now dying, has built another machine in secret and taps Ellie to go on the first journey.

Ellie’s journey through a wormhole system to the Vega star system remains, 20 years later, one of the most beautiful and fascinating sci-fi sequences on film. A rough and frightening ride through space, Ellie finds herself looking at a part of the galaxy unseen by any earthling. She says, her voice catching, “They should have sent a poet.”

Now we get to the part that choked me up so completely the summer of 1997. Seemingly floating down to a planet with a tropical beach, Ellie looks in the distance and sees a figure walking towards her. It’s soon apparent that it’s her father.

I’m grateful to this day that the theater was half-empty, because if anyone had been sitting too near me, they would have thought I had lost my mind. I burst into tears. I can’t quite explain why, but at that moment I finally accepted the one thing I couldn’t imagine up to that point—my dad was probably going to die.

Ellie, after embracing him and telling him how much she missed him, tells the figure that he’s not real, that none of what was happening was real, that they, the aliens, had downloaded her memories and created the illusion of the beach and her dad.

“That’s my scientist,” the alien pretending to be her dad says.

I lost it again. That’s exactly what her father would have said, and I had another epiphany: Ellie’s dad WAS there, he really was, in her memory. He had gone across the universe with her.

I knew my dad would always be with me, no matter what.

Obviously, making the alien look like Ellie’s dad is a bid for an emotional response from the audience. (In the novel this happens but Ellie travels with several other passengers, which dilutes the impact somewhat.) But this hit me on such a personal level at such a low point in my life that I never forgot it. Even writing about it now is making tears run down my face.

There is a great deal more to the movie, of course. Ellie wakes up on Earth and is told that she never left the machine, and the story she is telling about her experience has to be made up. She has to convince the world to take her experience on faith. The basic theme of the movie is reconciling science and faith.

I think the movie cheats a tiny bit (the science advisor admits privately that recording devices recorded 18 hours of static, even though she seemed to never leave the machine).

In the end, it doesn’t spoil my experience of the movie. Even if Ellie had only imagined her journey, it would have had no less impact on me.

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Book Review: Star Wars: Bloodline by Claudia Gray

MINOR SPOILERS ONLY FOR THE BOOK STAR WARS: BLOODLINE, BUT THERE ARE SOME MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS:

In a recent blog post about The Terminator, I cited Ripley from Alien as the first modern film action heroine—and she is the first who was the protagonist. But it’s Star Wars’ Princess Leia, in a supporting role, who’s the true seminal character in modern film.

Continue reading “Book Review: Star Wars: Bloodline by Claudia Gray”

Book Review: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

I am a huge fan of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, his epic tale of the first 100 colonists on Mars.

(Still waiting anxiously as of this writing for the TV adaptation. Hello, hello–any news on casting yet?)

I’ve read some of his other books, but none of them have captivated me in quite the same way as the Mars books.

Until now.

Continue reading “Book Review: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson”

Fury Road and the Optimism of Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopian Stories

Brad Bird, director of the film Tomorrowland (as well as The Incredibles and Ratatouille) did some complaining in interviews recently about the popularity of post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories.

Here is part of what he said in an interview with Wired Magazine:

“At one time the future was consistently presented as this bright thing where all these problems were going to be solved. I remember that feeling of wow, starvation will be solved and the air will be clean, weapons will be obsolete because we’ll understand that there are better places to put our energy. And gradually that vision has just been nibbled away at until it’s basically not there. And what’s in its place is this very dark, negative version that everyone seems to have accepted.”

I haven’t seen Tomorrowland, so I’m not going to judge the film, but many film critics point out that Mr. Bird explicitly berates society in the film for abandoning the can-do optimism of the 1960s space race in favor of gloom and doom scenarios.

Continue reading “Fury Road and the Optimism of Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopian Stories”

Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon is a Total Trip

This post is part of the Shorts Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently. Check out the other great posts HERE!

When I chose La Jetée as my topic for the Shorts Blogathon, I thought, why not also cover another influential French short sci-fi film? Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) is about as different film as you can find from La Jetée, yet its impact on the development of narrative filmmaking can’t be overstated.

Georges Méliès was a French illusionist who took up filmmaking at its very infancy. He was one of the first to use narrative structure in filmmaking (rather than just recording everyday life). He was also a pioneer of special effects, discovering the “stop trick” method by accident. Amazingly prolific, he directed at least 500 films. Today, about 200 survive, but there’s no doubt his most famous is A Trip to the Moon, which he made in 1902.

Continue reading “Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon is a Total Trip”

La Jetée: a 28 Minute Sci-Fi Masterpiece

This post is part of the Shorts Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently. Check out the other great posts HERE!

Today Chris Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetée (The Jetty) is best known as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 1995 movie, 12 Monkeys (and the current TV show of the same name). It has also been cited as an influence on Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife. I would hazard a guess that the writers of the TV show Lost also drew on it for one of their most famous episodes, The Constant.

Even if you have seen/read any of the above, they will not prepare you for the experience of seeing this short, remarkable film.

Continue reading “La Jetée: a 28 Minute Sci-Fi Masterpiece”

My Review of the Movie Divergent, Where I Don’t Compare it to That OTHER Franchise

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MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR THE MOVIE DIVERGENT:

There was once an episode of All in the Family where Edith was recounting the story of how she hit a car with a can of cling peaches (in heavy syrup). Archie got so sick of hearing her say cling peaches, Edith began replacing the words with “Mmm-Mmm.”

I am so darn sick of reading reviews about Divergent comparing it to The Hunger Games (and alleged “think pieces,” like this especially jerky one by Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman) that any time I feel compelled to do the same, I’m going use “Mmm-Mmm” instead.

Continue reading “My Review of the Movie Divergent, Where I Don’t Compare it to That OTHER Franchise”

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

KatnissCatchingFireTo regular readers of this blog it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of The Hunger Games Trilogy, the hugely successful young adult dystopian series by Suzanne Collins. So of course I had to see the movie adaption of the second book, Catching Fire, the very first weekend of its release.

I’m going to say right up front that it’s amazing. Not in a “I’m a fangirl and it followed the book closely enough to please my fangirl heart, so it’s amazing” kind of way. I mean, as a movie, it’s amazing, period.

There was a lot of angst among fans leading up to this movie. The director of The Hunger Games, Gary Ross, dropped out because he claimed there was not enough time to prepare for the release date set by the studio. Fans and non-fans alike weighed in with replacement suggestions, including Joss Whedon (a pie-in-the-sky choice, as he was about to go on a promotional tour for The Avengers), Duncan Jones (Moon), J.J. Abrams, Michael Bay, James Cameron, etc., etc., etc.

When Francis Lawrence (Water For Elephants) was chosen, some (O.K., I) felt he was a leftover choice, someone picked because he was the only one with free time in his schedule. An also-ran, a B-lister, someone who was going to phone it in.

Holy monkey mutts, were we wrong.

In anticipation of seeing The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I re-watched the first movie the other night. I liked it the first time I saw it and still do, but it has problems, mainly due to a too-low budget because the studio did not expect it to become a big enough hit to justify a larger one.

About 80% of the story is just fine without any major special effects, but the 20% that needs them suffers from sub-par effects. The scenes of Katniss’ dress shooting flames and the “muttations” (genetically engineered animals)—well, there’s no kind way to put it. They’re really meh. The muttations are supposed to be terrifying but look like blobby pit bulls.

While Ve Neill’s make-up is brilliant (she does it for the second movie as well) the costumes are an issue in the first movie. I liked the choice to give the clothes in District 12 a retro 1930s look, but the Capitol clothes look like someone ran through both K-Mart and Frederick’s of Hollywood, grabbing random stuff off the bargain tables. The sets in the Capitol have a similar psychotic look, and not in a good way.

That’s not the case now. Huge box office take for the last movie meant an upgrade in budget for the new movie. And, boy, does it show.

Everything—in the Capitol, the districts, the arena—feels bigger, more epic. The difference is stunning, and it’s not just visual. The movie now fits the story. The dystopian world is grimmer, the danger feels more immediate.

It’s not just because of an increased budget. It’s Lawrence’s style, which has more of a larger-than-life vibe than Ross’. He brings a lot more into the frame so the world feels complete. He also for the most part dispenses with the shaky cam that drove so many audience members bonkers in the first movie.

New costume designer Trish Summerville manages to find the right note between Capitol excess and actual fashion sense. The sets have also been retooled. In the Capitol, they look more futuristic. In contrast, District 12, even the Victor’s Village, has a Dickensian look.

This time around the story has been adapted by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (for some reason credited as Michael deBruyn). They get deeper into the political aspects of the society and the issue of post-traumatic stress syndrome (author Collins’ veteran father suffered from it, which partially inspired the story). They also delve more into the characters and their relationships, something sometimes missing in the first movie. For instance, the development of the relationship between Katniss and Peeta was puzzling to many who had not read the book. I think with this movie it will become much clearer to them.

In the first film, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteered to take the place of her sister, Prim (Willow Shields), as tribute in The Hunger Games. An annual fight to the death featuring adolescent children, Katniss and the male tribute from her district, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), managed to become the first dual winners by playing to the audience as star-crossed lovers.

For Peeta, it wasn’t an act. For Katniss, who has been focused on supporting her mother and sister since her father’s death, and who has never dared examine her feelings for her hunting partner Gale (Liam Hemsworth), it was an act—or, at least, she thinks it was.

As Catching Fire opens, Katniss and Peeta are supposedly living the good life in the Victors Village (the rest of the district is filled with horrendous poverty). But forgetting their time in the games is not so simple, as both suffer from flashbacks and nightmares. As victors, they must go on a “Victors Tour”—visit each district and mouth inane platitudes while the families of the fallen tributes are forced to listen and applaud them. They must also eventually serve as mentors to the tributes in all future games.

Visited by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) Katniss is informed that her trick to stay alive in the games has incited rebellion in the districts. During the tour she must calm the unrest, or she and everyone she loves will be killed.

With their mentor the drunken Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Capitol escort Effie (Elizabeth Banks) they depart on their tour and do their best to keep up the narrative of the star-crossed lovers. But it’s not easy to extinguish the spark of rebellion, and after the tour Snow and the new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) plot ways to crush it for good—and to crush Katniss. They start by sending a sadistic new Head Peacekeeper named Romulus Thread to District 12, who singles out Gale for his first victim. Katniss’ attempt to save Gale only inflames things more.

Snow’s solution to get rid of her is to make the next games, a “Quarter Quell” (every 25 years of the games is a “quell,” with a special twist) an “all-star” event, with tributes reaped from past winners. As Katniss is the only female victor of District 12, she is automatically in the games. Peeta insists on volunteering to accompany her. Katniss accepts her imminent death. She decides the one thing left for her to do is to keep Peeta alive because she believes he is the one who can truly lead and inspire people.

All the victors/tributes are damaged, mentally and/or physically, because of their time in the arena, which makes the Quarter Quell as horrific as the regular games. Worse, many of them have become close friends over the years. Being forced to kill each other is yet another example of Snow’s and the Capitol’s unending cruelty.

The arena is far different from the one in the first movie and the action from the moment the tributes enter it is heart-stopping.  Unlike the first movie, which had Katniss alone and avoiding confrontation much of the time, she is forced into alliances and the action comes more quickly and more often. There are confrontations with more “mutts” that I guarantee will NOT disappoint this time around.

New to the cast as tributes/former victors are Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America, Boardwalk Empire) as Beetee, a brilliant technician, Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction) as Wiress, his equally brilliant but mentally fragile district counterpart, Jena Malone (Sucker Punch) as Johanna Mason, who wields an axe as well as Katniss wields her bow and arrows, Lynn Cohen as Mags (Sex and the City) an elderly volunteer and Sam Claflin as golden boy Finnick Odair.

The standouts are Claflin and Malone. Claflin gives Finnick the sexy charm he needs, but where he really shines is in the emotional scenes. Malone is fierce as Johanna, her anger at being back in the games almost jumping off the screen.

Former director Gary Ross’ greatest gift to the franchise was Jennifer Lawrence. She gives Katniss not only strength, but fear and desperation as well, not only for herself, but for those she loves. She is not afraid to highlight her flaws, which gives Katniss the humanity so many identify with.

One thing Francis Lawrence (no relation) does not do is ignore the first movie. He expands on it. Everything feels bigger but is still consistent with the world established by Ross. He also never lets you forget the fallen of either movie.

This is important. Because the part that takes place in the arena is a heart-thumping action movie of the best kind, and it would be easy to get so caught up in that you forget this is a story about how war permanently damages the survivors.

He does not let you forget.

Not even for a minute.

Bring lots of tissues.

Then start counting down the days to Mockingjay Part 1.

Gravity: Story Trumps Accuracy in Fiction

gravitysandra

Gravity is a fantastic movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it. Blow the extra bucks on the 3D version—totally worth it.

Let me just say also, I love astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

I need to make that clear right up front.

He is not only a brilliant man, he’s a COOL and brilliant man. That’s an awesome combination.

When it comes to arguing the pro-science side, he’s the guy you want on your team.

When we’re talking about real life, that is.

When it comes to critiquing a movie, however, he kind of sucks.

(Sorry, Neil. Really, I love you, man.)

A few days after the movie Gravity, directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuaron, opened—to a record-breaking box-office take and many positive reviews—Tyson took to Twitter and sent out a series of tweets about the “mysteries” of Gravity. He basically picked apart every aspect of the movie that was not 100% scientifically accurate.

I happened to be on Twitter as these tweets were being posted and sat there with my mouth hanging open in dismay as I scrolled through them.

Many of the people I follow on Twitter are either sci-fi writers or sci-fi fans. My feed was suddenly awash with consternation over Tyson’s tweets.

One published writer I follow was so upset she vowed NEVER to attempt writing sci-fi again.

She’ll probably get over that eventually. But she was typical of the vocal reaction to Tyson’s tweets. Many felt he was denigrating the movie, and others, who either hadn’t seen the movie or saw it and didn’t care for it (no work of fiction is beloved by ALL), applauded him for smacking the movie down.

Tyson was clearly stunned by the reaction his tweets generated, because he took to Facebook the next day to clarify that he loved the movie and was sorry he did not also tweet the many things the movie did right.

Tyson was not the only scientist to pick apart the movie’s accuracy—there were others, including former astronaut  Scott Parazynski, interviewed for the New York Magazine entertainment website, Vulture. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin also did a guest review in The Hollywood Reporter.

One thing you can’t help notice, though, is that while they criticized some of the science in the movie, nearly all, like Tyson, emphasized that they loved it. Most call it the most scientifically-accurate space movie to date.

I also can’t help pointing out that Tyson and some others got one thing about the movie wrong—they called Dr. Ryan Stone, Sandra Bullock’s character, a medical doctor, and assumed she’s a physician, complaining she would not be working on the Hubble.

She’s not a physician. She’s a medical engineer. Not only that, but in real life two astronauts who were a physician and a veterinarian, on different missions, have repaired the Hubble during space walks.

Hey, I’m no scientist or expert on NASA missions, but it only took about 60 seconds of Googling to find that out.

So. Even the experts can be inaccurate now and again.

When it comes to the other items they brought up, I’m going to trust that they are correct and the movie is wrong.

On a couple of issues, it’s easy to see why the movie did not adhere to science completely. For instance, Tyson cited Bullock’s hair not floating in zero gravity. That’s likely because it was not possible to film it that way since they weren’t actually in zero gravity during filming. (I could mention other instances that were inaccurate and guess why director Cuaron went that way, but they’re spoilers.)

Why Cuaron made other choices that were inaccurate, I can’t say for sure, but my gut tells me it’s because it served the story better to tell it that way.

While on the one hand it’s a stunning visual experience (even the scientific naysayers admit it’s the closest most of us will ever get to experiencing what it’s like to be in space) the story is what shines the most in Gravity. On the surface, it’s a survival thriller—disaster strikes, the characters try to survive. But there’s much more going on. It’s also a story about emotional survival, about our small place in a vast universe, about our connection to each other as human beings. There were many moments during the movie where I was in tears, not because of any sappy sentimentality, but because it was such a visceral experience. Cuaron packed a lot in a very short running time (only 91 minutes!) and left me exhausted at the end from the relentless tension. He cleverly eschewed the usual Hollywood trappings (flashbacks, romance, conspiracy theories) and spun a simple yet deeply engrossing tale.

I’m not one of those people who dismisses inaccuracies with the standard “it’s only a movie” excuse. I’m not a science nerd, but I am a bit of a history nerd and sometimes become aggravated by historical fiction that plays fast and loose with facts. But if the changes serve to tell a better story, then the inaccuracies don’t bother me very much.

Cuaron clearly did his research and got much of the science right. But he also made choices that were not accurate, and still made a great movie.

It can be a very fine line, but story trumps accuracy every time.

Why Orphan Black Is A Seminal TV Show

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If you missed out on watching Season 1 of Orphan Black on BBC America, I highly recommend you watch it on BBC America On Demand, get a season pass on one of several digital platforms, or get a hold of the DVDs when they are released this week.

Melding sci-fi with paranoid conspiracies, there wasn’t much that seemed original about the show when I first heard of it. Still, I decided to give it a try. I was convinced I would get bored after an episode or two.

That didn’t happen. Instead, I found myself becoming ever more engrossed and intrigued from week to week.

Soon, I found myself beyond engrossed and cheering the existence of something truly special.

Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) is an orphan who has made some very poor choices in her life. To get away from an abusive lover, she abandoned her young daughter with her own foster mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Now returned after several months, she’s desperate to get her daughter back.

One night on a subway platform, she witnesses a woman committing suicide by jumping in front of a train. Even more jolting, she looks exactly like her. Sarah grabs the purse she left on the platform and assumes her identity.

The dead woman, Beth, was a cop. Oh, irony, since Sarah has often skated in territory beyond the law. With the intention of cleaning out Beth’s bank account to finance a new life for herself, her foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) and her daughter, Kira, Sarah slips into Beth’s life.

Right here is where the story could have immediately slipped off the rails, because the idea of someone managing to fool people she’s a cop when she isn’t one can be hard to swallow. Here, Sarah’s street-savvy and toughness come into play, as well as people believing what they are seeing, i.e. Sarah looking exactly like Beth.

Sarah not only has to fool Beth’s partner Art (Kevin Hanchard) but also her estranged boyfriend, Paul (Dylan Bruce). Complicating things further—Beth was on leave because she shot a civilian, and Sarah has to defend “herself” from the charges.

Into all these complications enters another woman identical to Sarah, who has a German accent and tries to warn her that they are both in danger. While driving together in a car, Sarah’s German version is shot and killed.

Soon two other identicals, Allison, an uptight soccer mom and Cosima, a hipster geek-girl, reveal that they are all clones. Into the mix comes yet another—the psychotic Helena, who has been convinced that all the other clones must die.

What makes Orphan Black a cut above many shows of this ilk: Maslany’s remarkable performance as multiple characters and the characters themselves, who are all so individual and complex they really DO seem like they are being played by different actresses.

Most of all, it’s such a rare thing to find a TV show with truly complex female characters, never mind a complex LEAD female character. All these elements together are what make it a seminal show, in my opinion.

Each one of the clones could have easily slipped into cliché, and yet they don’t, both because of sharp writing and Maslany’s masterful acting. Each character is flawed. Each has her good points (surprisingly, even psycho Helena, or at least she might have them if she wasn’t insane). Their struggle with the elusiveness of their identities is often poignant.

And on top of that, the show is also just plain FUN. It has a subtle humor—for instance, watching Allison’s suburban paradise implode is by turns both hilarious and terrifying. As you would expect for the genre, there are many twists and turns, the biggest saved for the final two episodes of the season. It’s often difficult to ascertain who are the allies and who are the enemies. As the first season progresses, the conspiracy gradually grows wider. By the end of Season 1, Sarah evolves from a self-involved semi-criminal to a credible, yet still flawed, heroine.

I’m hooked. Give the show a try, and you may become hooked, too.

Top 8 Things People Still Get Wrong About The Lost Finale

Jack and VincentIt’s that time again.

No, I’m not referring to the return of the cicadas that are starting to boil up from the ground after being asleep for seventeen years.

It’s the time of year to talk about TV season and series finales.

And, of course, this brings about yet another opportunity for people to complain about/decry the ending of Lost.

Let’s face it, this is not a once-a-year phenomenon. Any mention of Lost, any mention of anyone connected to Lost, and you are certain to see the following comments:

“Worst ending, ever!”

Or my personal favorite:

“I wasted six years of my life on Lost!”

A few other things repeatedly show up in comments sections, but I try to keep this blog rated somewhere in the vicinity of PG-13, so I won’t repeat them.

It’s not the only polarizing ending of a TV series. Entertainment Weekly recently had two slideshows on its web site—one for best series finales and one for most frustrating finales. Lost shows up on both, but so do the finales of Seinfeld and The Sopranos. Even so, it’s certainly the biggest lightning rod when it comes to the subject of series finales.

Look. I’m not out to convince anyone who was genuinely disappointed in the ending of Lost. People feel the way they feel. However, there are SO many inaccurate representations of the ending, that I felt moved to create this list to counter them. Let’s start with:

1. Everyone died in the original plane crash.  Blame ABC for this commonly-held belief. ABC made the decision to show the final credits over a shot of the empty beach where the “Losties” camped, with their belongings scattered everywhere as if it were immediately after the crash.

The producers/writers/directors of a show have no say over what is shown while the credits roll. This is left to the discretion of the network. They can show anything they want—scenes from next week’s episode (clearly not an issue here; just an example), scenes from another show to promote it, or a blank screen, or whatever else they want. They can even not show the full credits, if there’s a time issue (not every episode is the same exact length).

“Everything that happened, happened” was an oft-repeated phrase in the show. There was even some on-the-nose dialog in the notorious “flash-sideways” scene between Jack and his father where his father explained that everything the characters experienced on the island REALLY HAPPENED. The producers and writers have been quoted as saying it, too. Yet this belief still persists that they all died and the island was a kind of purgatory.

They didn’t. It wasn’t. I promise you.

2. The ending was deus ex machina. Aaargh! Is there any literary term more misunderstood than deus ex machina? I even wrote an article about it specifically because I saw someone erroneously use the ending of Lost as an example.

Deus ex machina means something or someone takes the fate of the characters out of their own hands.

It fascinates me how people zero in on final scenes of the flash-sideways and COMPLETELY ignore everything that happens in the present time-line. Those final scenes in the church aren’t even the “ending” in any real sense. Those scenes actually serve as a “coda”—an epilog to the actual story, which was the present time-line on the island.

Not one character had their destiny taken out of their hands.

Jack chose to sacrifice himself to stop the Man in Black from leaving the island, thus unleashing darkness throughout the world.

Hurley chose to become the island’s new protector.

Ben chose to become Hurley’s second-in-command.

Kate chose to leave Jack, the man she loved, behind so she could take Claire home to reunite her with her son Aaron.

After a great deal of persuading, Claire chose to go with Kate.

Desmond chose to return to Penny and his son.

Sawyer, Miles, Richard and Frank also chose to leave the island, taking a huge risk flying out in a plane that had recently crashed on the island.

Rose and Bernard chose to stay on the island.

Every character made a choice. No deus ex machina here.

3. The religious aspects of the ending came out of nowhere.  This is one of the criticisms of the finale that makes me suspect that some of the most vocal naysayers didn’t even watch the show.

There were three major running themes throughout the series:

Fate vs. self-determination

Faith vs. science

Redemption

I’m not pulling this out of the air—if you were truly one of those people haunting Lost message boards, you had to have participated in these thematic discussions. There was even an episode called “Man Of Faith, Man Of Science.”

Even more to the point, religion was an important aspect of several of the characters:

Charlie, Hurley, Desmond and Mr. Eko are explicitly shown to be Catholics. In fact, Desmond was once a monk and Mr. Eko is a priest (or calls himself one, after he took his dead brother’s place).

Jin and Sun are Buddhists.

Sayid is a practicing Muslim.

Think about how unusual that is for a TV series. Most of the time, the religion of TV characters is either vaguely implied or not specified at all.

Religion plays an important part in several episodes. Some examples:

Claire asks Mr. Eko to baptize Aaron, even though she’s not religious (she is shown to be more in the New Age camp, believing in astrology and psychics).

Mr. Eko and Charlie start building a church on the island.

Charlie crosses himself just before he dies.

Sayid is forced by the CIA to infiltrate an Islamic terrorist cell.

Kate makes a crack about Jack’s father’s name, Christian Shephard, in case anyone missed the point over six seasons.

It didn’t come out of nowhere.

4. The ending is “too happy.” I guess this falls into the category of personal opinion, but I found it very sad, actually.

I think what really bothered some people is that the flash-sideways was assumed to be a re-set of the character’s lives, where the plane never crashed and all the tragedies that happened on the island were erased.

If there’s anything the writers could be scolded for, it’s for giving that impression of the nature of the flash-sideways. The way the scenes were cut in the first episode of Season Six was deliberately misleading.

But . . . that’s not an uncommon trick by writers, they do it all the time.

To me, it was very bittersweet, almost like a knife through the heart, to know that Boone and Juliet and Jin and Sun and Charlie and other beloved characters were gone without a chance to live out more of their lives.

On the other hand, it truly would have been a cheat if the writers had given the characters a “do-over” life.

Everything that happened, happened.  Dead is dead.

They told us this many, many times over the life of the show.

5. It was focused too much on characters and not enough on the mysteries. It was always about the characters.

Always.

The mysteries were clearly used as a way to reveal character.

If that disappoints you—fair enough. If you wanted it to be more about the mysteries and the mythology, you are totally entitled to feel that way.

But since from Day One the story spent so much time focused on the characters, it shouldn’t be surprising that’s what the end was about, too.

6. The writers didn’t know how the show was going to end until fairly late in the series. This one’s true.

Damon Lindelof, among some of the other writers, admitted as much—they never expected the show to last past Season One. One of the reasons the show hit a very bad patch by mid-Season Three is because they didn’t know how much longer the series would last and how many characters and mysteries they had to keep spinning.

So they chose an end date and exit plan.

Here’s the thing, though. Even when it comes to the most devoted planner, outliner, meticulous storyboarder—most writers don’t know precisely how a story is going to end when they start writing it. For some reason, Lost was singled out as a show where the writers had to know EXACTLY where they were going from the EXACT MOMENT they started putting pen to paper, holding them to a standard almost no other writers in the world have to live up to.

That doesn’t mean the writers ignored everything that happened in the beginning—in fact, there are many threads from the early episodes of Lost that made it into the final season.

For instance, in an early episode, The Greater Good, Sayid pretends he is going to become a suicide bomber to help the CIA catch his friend who has joined a terrorist cell.

How does Sayid die? He blows himself up—for the greater good.

There are other examples of this—something easy to discover on a second viewing of the series. (Or third. Yes. I’ve watched the series all the way through three times. I may do it again one of these days.  Don’t judge me.)

7. They didn’t give answers.  Every major question was answered.

On Lostpedia they list all the unanswered questions for each episode, and most are minor.

What the island was, what the characters were doing on the island, what they had to do, what the Dharma Initiative was, who The Others were—all these questions were answered.

The problem is that some people wanted a very detailed explanation of the mythology, which the writers chose not to give. (Damon Lindelof has said he was afraid of an exposition-heavy scene like the one in The Matrix.)

Again, this is personal preference. If you preferred a detailed explanation of all the mythology involved, then you were going to be disappointed. But it’s not fair to say that they didn’t answer most of the major questions.

It’s again holding the writers of Lost to a tougher standard than other writers. Very few writers tie up every little thread neatly. In fact, when they do, it’s something that’s usually criticized. Heck, even Hitchcock didn’t tie up all the threads in his movies.

Thematically, it’s a different issue, because the answer they gave to faith or science and fate or self-determination was “yes,” “yes,” “yes,” and “yes.”

Some people were obviously aggravated not to get a clear-cut answer to the thematic questions the show posed.

Personally, I love the ambiguity.

8. About that “I wasted six years of my life!” thing:  No one wasted six years of their life watching and obsessing about a TV show. Even the most devoted fan spent at most a handful of hours per episode thinking about it. Can we move on from that?

Probably not, It sounds so dramatic, I doubt we’ll ever see that mantra disappear.

Ray Harryhausen Brought The Creatures Of Our Imaginations To Life

harryhausenHow you react to the news of animator Ray Harryhausen’s death today may depend on your age. If you’re under the age of 40 there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of him. If you’re over the age of 40, especially if you’re a fan of fantasy and sci-fi movies, you probably grew up loving his animation and special effects. You may not know him by name, but if someone said “skeleton sword fight” it’s likely you’d know exactly what they’re talking about.

When it comes to animation and special effects, we’re a spoiled lot these days. What has become possible with computer animation is pretty much . . . everything. Almost anything imaginable can be put on screen and look seamless and organic to a scene. We’ve become so blasé about it, that it’s not unusual for people to rag on special effects on TV looking “cheap” (because, erm, compared to a movie with a $200 million budget, an episode of television IS cheap).

So it’s quite possible to look at Harryhausen’s work from a present-day perspective and see them as kind of precious and quaint.

But to me—and many who grew up watching his films—they are still AWESOME.

I think the reason Harryhausen’s work resonated—and still resonates—is because he started out as a boy fascinated by dinosaurs and creatures, which speaks to all of us who were children fascinated by dinosaurs and creatures.

When his parents took him when he was a boy to see the original version of King Kong, he was determined to figure out how to make a creature like Kong. He started out with string puppets and eventually began studying how to do animation. He even started a studio in his parents’ garage.

Eventually, he met Willis O’Brien, who animated King Kong and The Lost World. On Obrien’s advice, he began to study art and anatomy. He went to work for producer George Pal, working as an animator on a series of shorts called Puppetoons. When he entered the Army during World War II, he joined the Special Services Division under directors Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak. There he worked on propaganda films, including some that used stop-motion animation.

A few years after the war, he was hired for his first major motion picture: Mighty Joe Young. The film won the Academy Award for special effects.

For the next 30 years or so, Harryhausen made many films using his stop-motion animation technique (dubbed “Dynamation” by producer Charles Scheer, who worked with him on twelve feature films). Some of his most famous are It Came From Beneath The Sea, 20 Million Miles To Earth, The Valley Of Gwangi, The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver, The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad, Jason & The Argonauts, One Million Years B.C. and Clash Of The Titans.

harryhausen_jason_2556555b

Jason & The Argonauts featured that army of skeletons I mentioned before, as well as a gigantic statue (based on the Colossus of Rhodes) that comes to life, a seven-headed hydra and an animated discus-throwing scene. Though the movie was not a box-office success at the time, it’s often been cited since as a classic of the genre.

Harryhausen’s feature film career ended with Clash Of The Titans because by 1981, the year of its release, special effects were already starting to evolve into what we are familiar with today.
Yet it’s difficult to imagine what we have today without Harryhausen’s pioneering work. Filmmakers such as Steven Speilberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, as well as many contemporary animators, cite Harryhausen as an influence. To film-lovers, his movies may not be great works in the sense of having complex characters, ingenious plots, or deep themes and ideas.

But, oh, they are SO much fun, SO imaginative, SO visceral.

Even Ross on Friends, who had a doctorate in paleontology, didn’t look down on a movie like The Valley Of Gwangi. In the episode The One Where Joey Speaks French, he looks like he’s enjoying the hell out of it, grinning like a kid. It’s not hard to imagine that Ross Geller was inspired to become a paleontologist because of a Harryhausen movie.

It’s not hard to imagine that Harryhausen inspired many people to a great variety of careers.

RIP, Ray. Thanks for all the fun and fanciful afternoons watching the creatures of our imaginations come to life on screen.

5 Things That Bug Me About Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopian Fiction

First, let’s define post-apocalyptic and dystopian:

Post-apocalyptic refers to a work of fiction that deals with a global disaster so profound there are few survivors. It may include a period of time leading up to the disaster, or it can take place years afterwards, but mostly it’s about the immediate after-effects of a disaster–war, environmental disaster, plague. The disaster can have a fantastical element, like zombies or vampires, or a sci-fi one, like an alien invasion.

Dystopian usually takes place far into the future. It may be post-apocalyptic or not. Society has in some way changed profoundly, most noticeably the system of government.

There is some disagreement over the definition of dystopian. Some believe it should only be defined as societies where people believe they are living in an ideal society, when in truth it has some oppressive or horrific element to it.

I think it’s O.K. to expand the meaning to societies where citizens know darn well they are oppressed. 1984 is a famous example, as is The Hunger Games series.

I love post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, but there are some things that run through even the best examples that annoy me:

1. The world collapses too easily. Having lived through several hurricanes, and of course seeing what happened with Hurricane Sandy and other disasters like Katrina, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, etc., something strikes me each time: we are a resilient species. It is remarkable how human beings bounce back after a profound disaster. They rebuild, they renew, they find a way to get back to some semblance of normality.

It’s true that a wide-spread disaster could conceivably bring down a system of government, but it’s not easy, and it’s unlikely to happen quickly. Rome fell, sure–but it was in decline for centuries before it happened. The Black Plague claimed one third of the population of Europe and threatened the feudal system, but the population eventually came back, and real changes to the feudal system took centuries.

The point is, it’s not believable if everything collapses within weeks or months or even years. Some semblance of society would probably remain. If it doesn’t, there had better be a really good reason why.

2. What the heck happened to religion?  This has nothing to do with my personal religious beliefs. This has to do with a major component of society that is glaringly absent in many of these stories.  This is more the case with dystopians, but it can be true of post-apocalyptic stories, too. There’s no religion. Of any kind, never mind what exists now.

Considering how it survived in countries with Communist regimes that banned religion, how during the Inquisition non-Christians still found a way to practice their religions, how many centuries the major religions have survived–it’s just not believable. Beliefs will endure, no matter what.

There may be new religions, I can buy that. But all of it, disappearing off the face of the earth? That does not ring true to me.

3. Complete isolation of the new societies from the rest of the world.  It drives me nuts when there is no mention of what’s happening in the rest of the world. It’s hard to believe that all kinds of communications could disappear that quickly or that completely. Someone would know how to operate a ham radio, at least. Or get in a boat, or fly a plane and go to another country.

I get that the isolation often ramps up the terror and suspense of the story, but it makes the characters seem somewhat stupid and incompetent.

4. Characters you know darn well couldn’t survive the new circumstances. Humans are resilient, true, but not everyone has the capacity to adapt, especially in an extreme circumstance. There are times when reading a PA or dystopian story when I wonder how certain characters haven’t been eaten by the zombies or captured by the government because they are such easy pickings.

5. Oppressive systems or circumstances that no one even thinks of rebelling against. I run into lots of dystopians like this, where there are things happening that are obviously unjust, and yet everyone accepts them as normal.

Let’s go back to Rome for a moment. Gladiator fighting and throwing victims to the lions were accepted forms of entertainment. But there were people who were against those things, too.

No matter how many people are FOR something, there are always going to be people against it, too. It really bugs me when that is missing from a story.

Why I Love/Why I Hate Disney Buying Lucasfilm

Why I Love: More Star Wars films.

Why I Hate: More Star Wars films that may exist solely to squeeze every possible dime out of an existing franchise.

Why I Love: There’s a whole generation of filmmakers who grew up on Star Wars who could revive the franchise creatively.

Why I Hate: There’s a whole generation of filmmakers who grew up on Star Wars who could finish it off once and for all.

Why I Love: Disney ownership has not negatively impacted the quality of Pixar and Marvel films.

Why I Hate: This could turn out to be the exception to the rule.

Why I Love: The possibility of the story continuing in a future time frame.

Why I Hate: The possibility that they will do more prequels instead.

Why I Love: Actors from the original films could appear in the new films.

Why I Hate: How old I’ll feel when I see the original actors in the new films.

Why I Love: George Lucas won’t be directing the new films.

Why I Hate: George Lucas is unlikely to have a significant creative role in making the new films.

Why I Love: A revived Star Wars franchise could inspire a whole new generation.

Why I Hate: A whole new generation could reject it.

Why I Love: Darth Vader might appear on Once Upon A Time.

Why I Hate: Jar-Jar Binks might appear on Once Upon A Time.

Book Review: The Twelve By Justin Cronin

The Twelve by Justin Cronin is the second of his post-apocalyptic/vampire trilogy. The first book in the trilogy is The Passage. I wrote a spoilerific analysis of one of the major characters in The Passage a while back. This review will refrain from divulging any major spoilers.

That makes it very difficult to write this review, because, boy, are there some huge surprises in this book.

Most sequels pick up where the last book left off, but that doesn’t quite happen with The Twelve. Cronin finds a clever way to bring readers back up to speed in the beginning (I won’t say how) and briefly lands five years after the events of the previous book.

Then he goes back to Year Zero, when the plague of “virals”–vampire/zombie-ish creatures created in the lab–was unleashed on the North American continent.

The characters he follows are some we’ve met before, including some whose fates seemed a foregone conclusion. Turns out, we were wrong. The new characters in this part of the book seem disconnected from the story so far, but keep reading, because everything turns out to be connected.

That’s not to say this part of the book is boring or a trial to read, far from it. As in the first book, the collapse of this world is incredibly gripping and his characters are fascinating. The reader’s patience–because we waited SO patiently for two years to find out what happens next–is richly rewarded, both by finding out what happens to the characters in Year Zero and by how the story continues 97 years later.

The title The Twelve refer to the original virals who were created by the government as a possible military weapon. They were death row inmates persuaded by FBI agent Brad Wolgast to take a treatment that might be the key to prolonging life indefinitely. A little girl named Amy was given a milder form of the virus and after one hundred years still looks like a pre-teen. She eventually made it to The Colony, a walled village of survivors who assumed they were the last people left on Earth. Some members of the colony, including Peter Jaxson, Alicia Denadio, Sara and Michael Fisher, realized Amy may be the key to finding a way to defeat the virals, so they set out on a perilous journey in the last book to find out how.

After one of the original virals, Babcock, was killed, Amy was able to help all the virals he created with their “passage” from life into death. She and Peter hoped that meant by killing the other original virals, they could reclaim the world for humans again. They also found out there were more human survivors, including a city in Texas with tens of thousands of them.

After five years, to Peter’s dismay, there has been no progress in destroying the rest of the original virals. Now a soldier, he finds himself going AWOL to seek out another rumored enclave of survivors in Iowa.

This turns out to be a place called The Homeland, a fascist dictatorship lead by Horace Guilder. He is a “red-eye”–a sort-of viral–who was a government bureaucrat in the “time before.” The Homeland is populated by survivors who have been kidnapped from other areas of the country and are forced to live in a kind of concentration camp to work as virtual slaves.

That’s where I have to stop giving an overview of the plot, because as I said, it’s chock full of surprises. Mr. Cronin certainly knows how to keep things from proceeding in a predictable manner.

He also has a remarkable talent for creating characters people genuinely care about. When he “killed off” a major character in the first book (yes, the quotes are there for a reason) it was hugely controversial, mainly because he was such a beautifully conceived character. While the book has some truly evil characters, almost all are given moments of complexity.

I felt a major theme of the first book was how goodness is not always sufficient in battling evil, as good people helped create the crisis by the sin of omission, or by waiting too long to act. In The Twelve, redemption is a strong theme that runs through the story, as several characters try to right many wrongs, including some they helped to create. Another running theme is the relationship between parent and child, as several characters lose or are separated from their children.

Consequently, this is a book populated by many sad and lonely characters, including some of the monsters, who aren’t quite as monstrous as one would assume. Some are going to break your heart. They sure broke mine.

My one quibble with the book is some of the violence (particularly against some of the women characters) is a bit more over-the-top than necessary. Not that I expect little or no violence in such a tale, but it could have been pulled back just a tad and still been just as effective.

Other than that, I found this a more than worthy follow-up to The Passage, and am once again facing a looong two-year wait for the next book, The City Of Mirrors. Can’t wait to sink my teeth into that one.

(I know, I know . . . I couldn’t resist.)