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Monthly Archives: December 2009

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Orson Scott Card Hates Star Trek, Loves Star Trek as Reimagined by Transformers 2 Writers

Orson Scott Card has never made any secret of his obsessive loathing for Star Trek. After Enterprise was canceled he wrote a sneering article saying that Star Trek was strictly for backward and stupid people, some of whom are probably gay or like to dress up as Klingons. But luckily for the human race, Card finally discovered a Star Trek he can love, a Star Trek that is truly brilliant and brimming with moral and intellectual depth. Star Trek as reimagined by the writers of Transformers 2.

“Because even though the movie continues to use Roddenberry’s asinine science, this movie has everything else I could have wished for: good writing, good acting, a powerful story, and the kind of ethical-dilemma philosophy that Roddenberry faked.”

Uh yeah. Good acting by actors who were imitating the original actors, whom Card hates. A powerful story that makes absolutely no sense. And the kind of ethical dilemma philosophy that could only be imagined by the producers of Hercules and Xena.

Only it’s presented subtly, intrinsically, so that “intellectuals” who have been trained by English literature classes to recognize only what is obvious miss it entirely.

“Subtly”. See if you’re one of those stupid edumacated intellectuals, you won’t understand the deep meaningful message of Transformers 2. It’s a message that only the completely uneducated can grasp.

It’s funny how Card goes from elitist Star Trek bashing, to anti-elitist Star Trek bashing. It’s almost like he’s a complete opportunist.

“And, best of all, this movie starts over. That is, it reinvents the Star Trek storyline with a new beginning, so that we can conceivably have intelligent, believable, well-acted, well-written Star Trek movies for years to come.”

Oh yes. Believable movies that present 20 something kids being put in command of the newest and best Starship in the fleet. What could be more believable and intelligent than that?

“Which brings us to the deep ethical and philosophical issues that this movie handles so well (and subtly). In the midst of all the action and adventure, the movie demonstrates to us — with delightful panache — that character is destiny. Even though the universe is very, very different, nevertheless every major figure from the original Star Trek series ends up on the maiden voyage of the Enterprise, and through a series of internally logical events, Spock and Kirk (the young versions) end up as captain and first officer of the ship! ”

They end up on the maiden voyage through no logical reason whatsoever, but because the writers have arranged it that way. It would be completely improbable for Spock, Kirk, Sulu, Uhura and Chekov, who are of different ages and were at different stages of their careers originally, to somehow end up all serving on the same ship together. It’s as improbable as the current crew of a Navy destroyer ending up together at the same time in a different timeline.

There’s nothing internally logical about it. And there’s nothing logical about a cadet 3 years out of the academy being given command of a Starship on a permanent basis. Clearly Card is using a form of logic that’s limited to Hollywood.

And the idea that character is destiny is not a deep philosophical and ethical issue. It’s one of the oldest cliches out there.

“There are also ethical dilemmas concerning revenge and justice. Eric Bana’s tormented Nero is punishing people in this timestream for things that happened in the other one.”

It’s not an ethical dilemma. Nero is just crazy. Khan had more of a case than Nero did. Nero decided to wipe out the Federation because Spock was late to his appointment.

But that’s the summary of it. Card predictably enough likes a watered down version of Star Trek with a virtually senseless plot and claims it’s the best Star Trek ever, and so much better than the original product it’s imitating. That would be like a Science Fiction reader putting down Heinlein and proclaiming that David Gerrold is so much better.

Red Thunder by John Varley book review

John Varley is far from the only writer to self-consciously copy Robert Heinlein, who unlike fellow grandmasters such as Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke seems to summons legions of imitators. But while Red Thunder follows a familiarly Heinleinesque story with four kids and a failed astronaut beating the Chinese and the US government space program to Mars, Varley has a very different skill set than Heinlein.

While Red Thunder is meant to be about what it would take for four kids to make it to Mars, it’s really more of Carl Hiaasen’s local Florida color with very little science and not a whole lot of Science Fiction in it. Where a Heinlein version of this novel would have really come alive in space, Varley’s Red Thunder is only successful when it’s churning up the local color, but turns into a bore once the Red Thunder actually takes off. Where in Florida, Varley gleefully lavished details on everything from the backwoods background of Jubal to the details of running the Blast Off Motel, in space the characters mostly mope about. They land on Mars with nothing to do there. They take off for a belated rescue of Travis’ ex-wife, that itself is hopelessly anti-climactic.

And then there’s the process, Varley takes more shortcuts than anything else, from inventing Jubal, a mentally defective genius who’s capable of inventing a mysterious space drive that provides virtually infinite power, to giving the 19 year old main character a millionaire girlfriend with all the skills of a CEO. And worst of all Varley makes the mistake of assuming that Manuel and the rest of the kids are far more interesting than Jubal and Travis, which they clearly are not. Red Thunder works best when it focuses on Travis and Jubal. It’s weakest when it moves the gang into space because unlike Travis, they have no real purpose there. And by the time the novel wraps up with one half of the gang running a hotel on Mars and the other half vanished into obscurity, even Varley should have realized that his focus was wrong all along.

Is Avatar Actually Racist?

Annalee Newitz at IO9 and Armond White at New York Press are among some of the critics arguing that Avatar is basically a white racial guilt fantasy, in which the everyman character not only atones for his guilt, but actually takes over.

From Armond White

“His undeniably pretty Pandora—a phosphorescent Maxfield Parrish paradise with bird-like lizards, moving plant life and floating mountains—distracts from the inherent contradiction of a reported $300-$500 million Hollywood enterprise that casually berates America’s industrial complex… Cameron fashionably denounces the same economic and military system that make his technological extravaganza possible. It’s like condemning NASA—yet joyriding on the Mars Exploration Rover.

While prattling about man’s threat to environmental harmony, Cameron’s really into the powie-zowie factor: destructive combat and the deployment of technological force… Going native allows Cameron to move on to the violent technology he really loves—

From Newitz

“These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color – their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege.”

Both White and Newitz make the point that Avatar is a very old Hollywood story that pretends to undermine white privilege, while actually perpetuating it. It just recenters the point of privilege to turn “people like us” into the heroes, saving native cultures that naturally wouldn’t be capable of saving themselves. Like just about every luddite rant from Hollywood, Cameron is being a hypocrite for using technology to condemn technology and call for us to live in a natural paradise instead. And all he’s done is created a one dimensional alien race that remix native americans with smurfs and thundercats, tell me that isn’t racist, in order to comment on something that just about everyone else has commented already.

In Defense of Armond White

There’s a campaign now to ban Armond White from Rotten Tomatoes so he doesn’t skew the “perfect score” of geek hit movies like Avatar, dark Knight or Star Trek with his negative reviews. After initially declining, Roger Ebert now seems to be on board with it. I’m not. Defending Armond White is no easy task, because while he isn’t a troll, a term that really has no meaning when applied to a contrarian film critic like Armond White, but his reviews are often bizarre, irrational and self-indulgent evacuations into oddball pop culture tangents. On the other hand whatever else Armond White may be, he isn’t a conformist. He has his own mind and uses it to express views radically different than the consensus, which is why there’s a drive to ban him from Rotten Tomatoes, and which is exactly why he belongs there. Because we need film critics who are ready to dissent from the consensus, not consent to the consensus, and Armond White’s recent slams of Precious and Up in the Air, movies that the rest of the crowd consensus loves, are perfect examples of why we need him there.

Avatar and the Gender Gap

(Old woman really excited about spending 500 million dollars of other people’s money on misspelled movie title)

With its environmental themes, strong(?) female characters, love story and hapless dull male lead, James Cameron was banking on repeating his success with Titanic, a movie that would have failed miserably if it hadn’t been embraced by the teenage girl audience, that these days is busy poring over Twilight novels. The PR for Avatar has repeatedly emphasized its female appeal, with James Cameron doing his best to talk like Joss Whedon and going on about how he makes chick flicks. Surprise though, the ticket sales for a movie about cartoon thundersmurfs in space is skewing male. Big time. So far 78 percent of ticket buyers for Avatar are male. Cameron meanwhile is still going on about how Avatar is going to become a success over time, the way Titanic did. Uh yeah. Even if Twilight New Moon still wasn’t in the top 10, the odds of that audience embracing Avatar are very low. And while that 78 percent may mainly reflect early Avatards obsessed with seeing the movie, who are going to be mostly male, Avatar will not be doing the kind of extended business that Titanic did. FOX is spending a mint on promoting it, but when it’s all over but the shouting, a CG cartoon set in outer space is going to skew teenage male.

Old Directors + CG = Lazy Failure

What do George Lucas’ three prequel Star Wars movies, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and James Cameron’s Avatar have in common? They’re all three rather obvious cases of aging directors who lost the ability to make a good movie some time back, faking it by throwing enough CG at the screen so no one knows the difference. If George Lucas had not had the Lucasfilm gang there to create entire CG worlds for him, critics and audiences might have realized a little sooner than The Phantom Menace was actually an unwatchable embarrassment, instead of praising it to the skies. (And Avatar is now getting the same kind of reviews that Phantom Menace got, for the same two reasons, a famous director making a comeback and a ton of CG graphics on the screen.) Steven Spielberg didn’t even bother trying to turn Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull into a good movie. Instead the movie mainly relied on obvious CG scenes that were completely unbelievable, which gave rise to the “Nuke the Fridge” meme. Now James Cameron is back, and like Lucas and Spielberg, this is the case of an aging director who’s long ago lost touch with his storytelling roots, trying to pretend to be relevant by throwing a lot of CG at the screen. But using visual effects like this for old directors turns into cinematic viagra, delivering splashy visuals with nothing behind them to back it up.

Betting Too Hard on 3D

First 3D was supposed to be the gimmick that would save movie theaters from the twin scourges of internet piracy and Netflix. Now 3D is supposed to be the gimmick that finally gets people to pony up during a recession or depression or whatever this is, for a Blu Ray player, a technology that most people who aren’t early adoptees have made it clear they’re not too interested in, and a new TV. Of course if we’re taking 3D deep into the American household and integrating it all the way, with Sony and Microsoft likely to jump on the 3D bandwagon soon enough, then that defeats the use of 3D to create a unique theatrical experience that can’t be replicated on the couch or the keyboard. What’s even more ridiculous is that with all the billions being shoved into the mix, 3D’s popularity remains untested and 3D movies have not really scored too well. Yes Avatar will make money, but it’s not clear that it would have made any less without the 3D. A Christmas Carol’s performance has been mediocre. Monsters and Aliens won’t be getting a sequel. Maybe it’s time to bring back Smellovision.

Why I’m Skipping Avatar

Avatar opened in movie theaters today and is no doubt on its way to the usual four day weekend record, followed by a probable slide next week and probably gone to 5th place in a month. Not that it really matters, but Avatar has all the hallmarks of James Cameron going George Lucas and investing everything in a didactic moralistic and painfully predictable story, that is all the more predictable because it’s so derivative. But while Avatar might soar, I’m betting that it might also go the way of 2012 and King Kong, big movies that seemed larger than life and unbeatable, but turned out to have no legs at all. The 3D gimmick and the sheer amount of money Cameron and FOX have spent on Avatar may shield them from the backlash, at least initially, but I really have no interest in investing my time in seeing a 500 million dollar remake of Ferngully 2 crossed with a Poul Anderson novella. Cameron does many things well, as a director, but does almost everything badly as a writer. And Avatar’s story is something you can pick up from the trailer, which means the only reason to bother with the movie is the thrill ride of special effects. Effects that will be completely dated 5 years from now. No thanks. I’ll pass.

Stargate Universe gets Edgy with Justice

Just as Stargate Universe seemed to be settling into a familiar pattern and entering safe territory, Justice, the episode that marks the mid season break delivered a genuinely shocking twist of an ending. From the beginning Justice seemed to be treading familiar ground, turning out the sort of mystery episode that every SciFi show does now and then. A bottle show to save money. But then in the last 10 minutes, Justice turned not by breaking in a new direction, but by taking the episode’s existing direction to the limit.

By the time Justice ends, Young has actually done what he was falsely accused of at the beginning. He murdered or tried to murder one of his crew, because he was too much of an obstacle to his command. If the first half of Justice left us with the comfortable feeling that clearly Colonel Young was being framed, by its end, Young does what he was accused of to the man who framed him. Anyone who sat back in their easy chair even after Young brutally beat Rush and Rush bared his teeth and charged at him with a rock, certain that seconds after Young stepped in, the suspense would be broken with Rush’s appearance, was disabused of that.

Naturally Rush isn’t gone. The alien spaceship conveniently located on the planet will no doubt catch up to Destiny with Rush at the helm. But it is a game changing moment, more daring than anything that the vaunted Battlestar Galactica had done in a while. It also marks a real break with the previous Stargate shows and places the series closer to the edge of 24. It isn’t of course what Colonel O’Neil would have done, but the writers and producers of Stargate Universe seem determined to take the series to a place where survival is more important than the properly timed wisecrack. And they seem to be succeeding.

Twilight for Neil Simon

Arguably the failure of the Neil Simon revivals, Brighton Beach Memoirs, after one week, and the alternating failure of Broadway Bound, received more attention than their debut in the first place. There are of course all the obvious reasons for it. The demographic that made Neil Simon successful on Broadway is more likely to be in Florida than Manhattan, which is the same reason why Jackie Mason has gone Off Broadway too and Fiddler on the Roof is playing somewhere in the Catskills. The audiences for the flavor of packaged working class Jewish nostalgia are either retired or no longer exist. Brighton Beach Memoirs itself, set in 1937, might appeal to the 82 year old contemporaries of Neil Simon, whose numbers and disposable income are not exactly legion.

But more than that is the changing nature of the theater itself. Broadway is aimed squarely at tourists with Disney productions, Mamma Mia and the few revivals there tend to be celebrity centered. Whatever nostalgia plays on Broadway now, is Baby Boomer nostalgia with productions like Grease. Neil Simon’s productions weren’t neon lit rock and roll extravaganzas, but the theatrical equivalent of the sitcom. A way for families to sit and laugh at mirror images of themselves on stage. But the television family sitcom isn’t doing too well, and the kind of working class audiences that might have wanted that sort of thing, are getting it from Tyler Perry at the movie theater, and not on Broadway.

Broadway does not cater to New Yorkers and Off Broadway is more about drawing in hip audiences looking to watch something trendy. The Avenue Q audience does not have much overlap with Neil Simon, except that they’re often the grandchildren of his original audiences. And Japanese and Minnesota tourists visiting New York don’t come here to see Neil Simon. They don’t even know who Neil Simon is. That is not to say that Neil Simon’s twilight is a great loss. His plays were closest to sitcoms, but they did make a time when theater meant performances aimed at the public, rather than at the tourist trade and the gentrified boroughs. But go ask London about that.

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