Monday, June 29, 2009

The Weekend's Films 2

Last minute Hugo reading is keeping me both busy and quiet, though I hope to have some more Hugo-related stuff by the end of the week. In the meantime, here are a couple of films.
  • Virtuality - Not a film per se but what was to have been the pilot for Ronald Moore and Michael "Unfinished Business" Taylor's follow-up to Battlestar Galactica, it aired this weekend as a standalone movie (which was quite unfair of Fox as the pilot by no means stands alone). Taking place aboard the spaceship Phaeton as it approaches the point of no return in its journey outside the solar system, Virtuality's chief virtues are its looks--Phaeton's interiors and its CGI exteriors, some nicely done action scenes, and the judicious integration of surveillance footage into the show's traditionally shot scenes. Other than that--and the fact that space-set television has become an endangered species--I see no reason to lament Virtuality's early demise. The pilot feels several drafts short of completion--or, to be less charitable, it feels lazy, as though Moore and Taylor didn't feel any obligation to hook their audience with a coherent story or a discernible direction for their show. Instead, they seem to have written the first chapter of a story, which makes gestures towards several different plotlines and takes it on faith that viewers will tune in next week to see which one of them the writers are actually interested in telling.

    Virtuality is telling at least four different stories. At its most fundamental level, it is the story of an isolated, multi-racial, multi-gender, multinational crew on a years-long mission towards what may be humanity's last hope of survival (in its presentation of this story the pilot steals quite shamelessly from Sunshine, though not when it comes to visuals, which is really the only aspect of Sunshine you'd want to imitate). The mission, however, is being funded in part by a media conglomerate, and crewmembers are made to participate in a reality TV program, complete with a confessional chamber and cheesy promos interspersed with the show's action (besides being over the top, this storyline completely ignores both the transmission lag once Phaeton leaves the solar system and the strain that time dilation will place on program scheduling). Meanwhile, crewmembers entertain themselves in VR simulations, but one by one these programs are corrupted, turning violent and traumatic. Finally, frequently voiced suspicion of the mission's sponsors boils over when one of the characters is killed and another becomes convinced that they were murdered. Virtuality gets so bogged down in establishing each of these stories that it forgets to tell a story in its own right. When the credits roll, all we're certain of is that weird shit is going on. Between the proliferation of plotlines and the sheer size of the cast, the characters are given very short shrift--most of them are types (the tough as nails female pilot, the scientist who is grieving for a son he neglected for his work, the oily psychiatrist slash reality show producer) and those that aren't are simply tough to get a handle on--the mission commander careens unexpectedly from dourness to euphoria without ever letting us see his center, all while we're being told that he's a natural leader and the only person who can keep the crew together. There are one or two nice exchanges between the characters, but no exceptional ones, and hardly any really cool moments of any kind. These are all problems that might have been dealt with had the series gotten a season order, and it is true that odder and less coherent pilots, by which I mean Dollhouse, have been given that chance. The difference, of course, is that Dollhouse is made by someone who has earned my indulgence whereas Virtuality's creators are the main point against it, and in order to have developed any investment in the series, much less tolerance for its faults, I needed the pilot to be exceptional, not busy and underdone.

  • Coraline - Once again, this is a film whose chief virtue is its looks, though in this case that's clearly intentional. The stop-motion animation is stunning, and the use of 3D only intensifies its beauty and its creepiness (though on a personal note I have to say that 3D gave me a headache so bad that I was barely able to make it through the film's 100 minutes. I certainly won't be able to put up with it for 2+ hours of James Cameron's Avatar, so sign me up for the 2D version). The film sticks rather close to the plot of the original novel, but for the addition of a boy in the real world whom Coraline befriends (this is only annoying at the very end of the film when he rescues Coraline at the last minute). This faithfulness, however, is actually a problem, as much like the novel Coraline has a lot of dead space, moments whose purpose is merely to show off Gaiman's odd inventiveness. These work better in the novel where they take less time to get through (though the cumulative weight of their tweeness does get a bit wearying). In the film, we end up with several set pieces which do nothing to move the plot. This is where I think the decision not to make Coraline into a musical a la The Nightmare Before Christmas (according to IMDb They Might Be Giants had already recorded several tracks for the film before the change was made) serves the film ill, as the songs could have filled up this dead space. On the other hand, songs would certainly have undercut the creepiness of the second half of the film, in which the true nature of the other world is revealed. I never found Gaiman's novel particularly scary, but the film really is, both in its depiction of the Other Mother and in the way it captures the enormity of the danger and challenges that Coraline finds herself facing. The strong second half, and the beautiful animation, mostly make up for the film's slow buildup, but in the end I find myself having roughly the same reaction to the film as I did to the book--nice, and with occasional flashes of excellence, but ultimately too enchanted with its own weirdness to be much of a story.

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