February 2007 Media Reviews
by Rogan Marshall
Article ISBN/ITEM#: RM022007
Date: 05 February 2007 /
Every January, the Hollywood studios carefully release and promote arty B-list awards favorites; this year, the science fiction and fantasy genres are directly affected.
Though "our" genre(s) have been a part of the film making business since the very beginning (as documentaries love to point out, so they can play cool clips from the Melies moon movie) the Hollywood machine and the technicians who attend it have for the last forty years allowed their collective attitude toward the fantastic in film to lag badly behind the times. While in print the fantastic element has not merely encroached upon but arguably taken over the very center of the fiction mainstream, Big Hollywood has responded sluggishly, at best, often ignoring the successes of fantastic films (instead of, as one might expect from savvy businessmen, multiplying them) with a studious inattention that to most outsiders is both frustrating and inexplicable. If you get me alone in conversation, where word count isn't an issue, I'll wax at length about how this collective reluctance to magnify and dignify screen fantasy and science fiction is not, as it might seem, a question of intelligence, but rather, largely, one of taste... however, beyond that, the subject is beyond the scope of this column.
One unfortunate side effect of that dated dominant attitude has been that Hollywood almost inevitably treats fantastic film as kid's stuff, literally and directly for children or at best adolescents; while we readerly genre fans are certainly used to it, as the vast majority of fantastic print classics tend in the same direction, it hasn't been the predominant factor in everything we get since before I was born, as it remains in the American mainstream cinema, nor does performing for children, among those classic fantasy and SF authors, necessarily imply or lead to condescension. As most fans know, virtually every thoughtful fantastic film in English until at least the early sixties maintained a pretense of simple-mindedness, sidelining its real content as subtext and/or style. Stanley Kubrick's stated goal for 2001 (to his collaborator Arthur C. Clarke at the outset) was to make "the first good science fiction movie"; by this he meant that no one else had before then (1966ish when they started) taken such subject matter seriously. Though it's been forty years since Kubrick and Clarke pointed the way, it unfortunately continues to be a long slow uphill battle, for those of us who eagerly embrace real "adult" content in genre film.
So I think this year may be special, in that two high profile mainstream fantastic movies (one SF, one fantasy) are mature dark films both elevated of tone and intended for adults, obviously dressed for awards success, their careful prestige platform release schedules spreading unexpectedly wide, even as I write these words, due to their unpredicted box office success. Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth have another most specific and notable point in common: the bright young Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, whose last picture was the third, and first really good, Harry Potter movie, Prisoner of Azkaban. Cuaron, who directed Children of Men and co-produced Pan's Labyrinth, is obviously a man who cares passionately about fantastic film; though he has yet to deliver a genre masterpiece, it's a safe bet that he's going to, and probably soon – two simultaneous sleeper successes ought to hand him the personal leverage necessary in Hollywood to get the backing for something similar and riskier.
Though Children of Men is a finely turned piece of work, and the buzzing voices you've heard or joined are largely right, I, jaded viewer that I am, found its most remarkable quality to be the contrast between Cuaron's energy and the quiet mediocrity of the script it illuminates. Based on a novel by usually mysterious bestseller P.D. James, Children of Men takes place in a dark and frightening 2027, sharply detailed in the first couple of reels (wherein the narrative is fringed with an overload of design-delivered information recalling the interchapter portions of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar), centered and rendered politically chaotic by the collective sterility of the human race, to whom, for unknown reasons, no child has been born in 18 years. Clive Owen plays a burned out alcoholic former radical whose ex-wife Julianne Moore draws him into a questionable scheme with her terrorist comrades, an anti-fascist anti-government group called the Fishes. His decision to commit is cinched by explosive and unexpected violence, followed by the revelation that the revolutionaries he's fallen among are hiding the world's only pregnant girl.
It's an interesting setup, but the screenplay, which Cuaron and a screenwriting partner wrote the final credited draft of, but which obviously underwent a tortuous "development" process (2 other drafts are credited onscreen), doesn't work very well after the first half hour, abandoning rich detail to grow increasingly improbable. Cuaron, however, has done such a great job, such a really exceptionally great job, of using visual style to carry the flimsy script, that it cinches the comparisons a couple of wow-length trick shots draw between this movie and the work of Orson Welles, whose noir crime thrillers The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil famously work a similar equation.
However, when Welles condescended to pour his genius into those second-rate texts (both were based on notoriously mediocre current bestsellers), he went all the way: The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil are most impressive in that they have not just real style, but real heart, too. Children of Men is stylish, true, but the shabby shallow story, which gets especially shaky as science fiction, and an essential ugliness behind its relentless darkness and violence, leave me with reservations about recommending it very highly, especially among SF fans. It is however exactly the kind of science fiction Big Hollywood needs to see succeed, for the genre as a whole to move forward: a science fiction movie made strictly for grownups, concerning adult matters and ideas. If urgent violent realism isn't exactly my favorite flavor, it's rare enough, within the genre, that I guess Children of Men is okay by me.
In a broad sense, though specifics differ, the same things both positive and negative are true of the smaller, even darker, even more violent Spanish-language fantasy Pan's Labyrinth, which was written and directed by Cuaron's fellow Mexican, Guillermo (Mimic, Hellboy) del Toro. Pan's Labyrinth takes place in a Spain at war; a pregnant woman travels with her daughter through rebel-haunted woods to join the father-to-be, a vicious uptight officer (played beautifully by Sergi Lopez) who torments the villagers under his "protection", and whose rations he controls, in various attempts to draw out and entrap the rebels they're secretly supporting. As perceived by the lovable little girl lead, the woods that surround and isolate this tense menacing character drama are also haunted by extremely creepy fairytale creatures, including the title satyr, who, in a series of elaborate fantasy sequences (structured much like those in the Terry Gilliam classic Brazil), leads the preteen heroine through several grotesque and disturbing quests.
Like Children of Men, this movie is thinly scripted, but works better than it ought to, both because of its sharp style, and because the story is so harsh and brutal that we can't possibly expect things to turn out the way they do (del Toro has obviously made a mandate of exploding many fairytale "cliches," among them the 19th-century generic emendation that fairy tales always end "happily ever after"). Both movies are drawing intensely positive responses from people who want real "adult" material in their genre film; tellingly, the highest praise is sounding from the mainstream, from critics and audiences unfamiliar with the possibilities of the fantastic already explored and expressed in the prose literature. It is true that Pan's Labyrinth boasts several dark and claustrophobic fantasy sequences that are indeed striking and memorable, and even creeped me out, jaded, as I said, as I am; but they only comprise about fifteen minutes of the movie, a movie during which I spent more than fifteen minutes wondering why filmmakers willing to make an "adult fantasy" at all, are being too cautious to craft work that will satisfy seasoned genre fans, like the filmmakers themselves obviously are.
A fantasy or science fiction movie can be grim, violent, and ugly – as Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth both are, pretty unrelievedly – but still embrace the higher qualities we search for in genre material. That indescribable something in good science fiction I'd thumbnail as "consciousness expanding", a correspondingly evasive quality in great fantasy I'd call its "sense of wonder", are entirely, frustratingly missing from both of these movies; so is the richness of strange detail that makes a good fantastic film a pleasure to rewatch again and again. Neither is either movie emotionally engaging. I'm glad people are lining up to see both these admittedly interesting movies, because that's good news, for the future of the genre(s) in Hollywood; I just wish they'd both aimed higher – they so clearly could have.
Among several otherwise dismissible family-oriented theatrical openings (the boring babysitter Night at the Museum, the offensive and dreadful Happily N'Ever After, and a paint-by-numbers teen werewolf movie called Blood and Chocolate, which apparently only exists to give critics like me the chance to recommend watching Ginger Snaps instead), the clear, unexpected winner is the new Luc Besson picture Arthur and the Invisibles. It really shouldn't be unexpected, because Besson's association with flawed but fascinating fantastic films goes all the way back to his brief French-language career (and his first feature, Le Dernier Combat, a post-apocalyptic drama that remains well worth seeking out). The previews for Arthur and the Invisibles sure put me off, though, presenting a careful selection of weak comic moments that are supposedly meant to capture the attention of small children, and almost made me dodge this movie altogether. I'm glad I didn't; though it is, true, aimed at very small children, Arthur and the Invisibles is also a good deal of fun.
Based on the first in a series of children's books (European bestsellers by Besson himself), Arthur and the Invisibles concerns the title child and his grandmother, who live in the family's Connecticut mansion, waiting for her husband and Arthur's grandfather, the famous engineer and explorer of Africa who has mysteriously disappeared, to return and save the mansion from evil debt collectors. As Arthur discovers by following a trail of clues left for him by grandpa, the sprawling yard is occupied by extensive miniature semi-human critters, who regard it as The Seven Kingdoms, and the missing grandfather has shrunk himself and disappeared among those hidden occupants, in search of the treasure that'll save the house. Arthur has to follow in his grandfather's footsteps and become a cartoon "Minimoy" (the French version of the title's "invisibles") himself, in which animated form he experiences a grand adventure, accompanied by the lovable Minimoy Princess Selenia, in his quest to save his grandfather and his home.
There's nothing original going on here, and this movie is definitely best suited for six year olds. That being said, it's an energetic and very likable little fantasy, not quite as beautifully designed as say The Fifth Element (Besson's best genre work to date) but still pretty advanced in terms of its look, and, laudably, it is both earnest and gentle, never winking at the adults over the children's heads, never allowing itself the luxury of becoming disturbingly dark. Besson operates here as if he has kids of his own to play to; if he lifts bits of story from a half-dozen established classics (Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and The Borrowers stories foremost among them), he does so winningly, spinning something that's fresh enough to sparkle slightly from the material he's (perhaps appropriately?) borrowed. Those lousy previews sabotaged its success here, but Arthur and the Invisibles hit big in Europe, and sequels are apparently already underway; parents who are also fantasy lovers will be pleasantly surprised by this picture which, as it seems all the family-oriented fantasies are these days, appears to be the first in a projected trilogy.
On DVD, I wholeheartedly recommend the newly re-released and retitled French period mystery/Goth fantasy Dark Portals: Chronicles of Vidocq. The new title (when I first saw this movie five years ago it was just called Vidocq) apparently serves to catch the attention of the genre fans who will love this movie, because it distinctly lacks any chronicle-type story element or structure, or portals of any description. Don't let that put you off: Pitof, who designed effects for the classic City of Lost Children, wears that association on his sleeve in directing and co-scripting this garish genre-hopping production, in which early 19th century Paris is stalked by a mirror-masked killer, whose multifarious scientific achievements include contriving to strike down his prey with lightning. Through an elaborately constructed story-within-a-story, the killer is hunted by famed detective mastermind Vidocq (Gerard Depardieu) in flashbacks that structurally depend from the parallel hunt for Vidocq's murderer by his dedicated young biographer. Like City of Lost Children, Vidocq literally seethes with baroque, decadent detail, and further, this movie is decorated with camera work and editing so cutting edge they look better now than they did five years ago. Vidocq also recalls, to my tangential mind, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels, in tone and style, and in the imminent threat of the fantastic's intrusion, rather than a constantly immanent fantastic element. If you're a "dark fantasy" fan, don't miss this sadly under promoted DVD.
Those who, like me, are distressed by how folks keep making unpleasant films like Happily N'Ever After and the forthcoming Shrek 3, which abuse and ridicule classic fairy tales, when no one's taken a real shot at respectably adapting the fairy tales themselves for all too long now, may, like me, find their irritation assuaged by another under-promoted DVD release, the recent BBC adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's strange sad story The Snow Queen. This hour-long featurette (originally aired on British TV at Christmastime) does not seem to be essentially aimed at children; it's a slow, impressionistic, sometimes almost abstract version, in which the fantastic element is muted, and atmosphere is carefully cultivated. That's okay; adults who love Andersen, Grimm, et al, for the heavy subtextual overload they carry to an adult reader, will find their sensibilities cleverly echoed in this production, which is also extremely advanced visually, using depth and detail in design and exotic digital treatment to create something much more like a painting, or a dream, than the average TV production for children (or any television at all). While my 8-year old daughter might find this version of The Snow Queen dreadfully soporific (luckily, she wasn't around when I watched it), I, myself, was surprised and captivated.