A while back, my writing bud Bek and I did a series of fun movie reviews for the Escape blog, complete with witty meme art and good-natured snark. Here’s all of them in one place, because I’m feeling a bit of nostalgia today. THEY ALL CONTAIN SPOILERS. You have been warned. But fun, loads of fun.
This Sunday Circle is an initiative of Peter M Ball (see here for this week’s). I don’t get to it every week, but this is one of those weeks, so here we go.
What am I working on this week?
Well, the big news is that the THESIS IS DONE*. Which is to say that the document is done … the actual submission is being thwarted by the university sending its submission system down for the ENTIRE WEEKEND. Of course! What other weekend would it be? So, this week, my first order of business (after the family responsibilities) is to actually submit the document, and then do the other eleventy million steps in the process. But otherwise, done.
Other than that, there’s not a heap on this week, for good frickin reason. I’m done. Wiped out. I need to prepare to teach all day Tuesday (after which, wipe-out will be complete) but after that I plan on taking a day to clean the house, before heading to Melbs for the RWA conference. There, I plan to do very little except recharge, eat Poke bowls (which we cannot get in Brisbin**), and make some hat tip moves towards the next project.
*where follows my usual nod to the gods of hubris not to punish me too harshly for such declarations.
**I was somewhat chuffed when listening to the audiodrama of William Gibson’s Alien III to find New Brisbane (pronounced bris-BANE, rather than the local norm bris-bin) mentioned as an actual place. I’m intrigued what set of future calamities/fortunes have elevated dear Brisbane into galactic significance. I mention this here because I didn’t in the blog.
What’s inspiring me this week?
People who manage to take time out of their lives to actually do the things they want to do, rather than just talking about it. Also, the 10% Happier app (an off-shoot of Dan Harris’s 10% Happier which I read a year or two back). The app was recommended to me by Andrea Featherstone, who I met at the EWF in Melbs a few weeks ago. I’m reflecting a lot on how I make decisions, and how I go forward from here, especially now the thesis is done. Where to go next isn’t straightforward in creative writing (and never has been anyway) … it’s not like there’s academic posts just waiting to be filled, and the industry avenues don’t come with anything resembling a reliable income. I’m thinking very seriously (but in a much less panicked way than normal) about what the best move is now.
What action do I need to take?
Be patient. Go through submission when the site comes back up. Take the pause I’ve declared I’m taking this week. And then, do the next thing.
In the last few posts, I’ve made a couple of references to sequels, and how sometimes they are disappointments (which is a very mild and expletive-free way of putting it). Most (all?) sci-fi fans in my circle agree that the Alien franchise lost its way with Alien 3 and that other terrible one that came after, and the one after that. You know, the one with Winona Ryder as an android. And the other one, with Michael Fassbender. As an android.
We argue the relative problems and merits with different degrees of ferocity, but there’s a lingering disappointment of where the story went. Neatly writing off Corporal Hicks and Newt at the start of Alien 3 is the kind of narrative cop-out that fans notice. We know it’s because those actors weren’t on board, or were fired. Or something like that.
But with Alien, the fans have always known that it wasn’t meant to be this way. There was another script. Actually, there were a whole host of other scripts, a revolving door of screenwriters and script doctors, variously fired or quit along the way, such that Alien 3‘s status as a true camel (in the horse-built-by-committee sense) is hardly a surprise. The first of those scripts, the original one, it was written by William Gibson, legendary cyberpunk author and still a writer who I can remember thinking of as ‘king of cadence’. But I digress.
This, being the 40th anniversary year of Alien saw the release of an Audible original audiobook recording of Gibson’s Alien III script. This was originally meant to be the first of two movies, the first where Hicks becomes the protagonist and Ripley takes a bit-part only role, before returning for a more central role in the fourth installment.
And that’s exactly what the script audiodrama feels like. It feels like Alien 2.5, a set of events that take place after the Sulaco violates the space territory of a break-away, communist-style people. It holds a palpable sense that the xenomorph as an organism now released from its Pandora’s box, a status that might be impossible to reverse.
Even though this is a short script (only about 2 hours listening time – and the first 10 mins a recap of Aliens), there are also clear signals as to other forms of spread (other than the egg-embryo seen in the first two films), the xenomorph’s adaptable DNA, its possible history as the end product of someone else’s arms race, and where the fourth movie was supposed to go. There is mention of black goo and various other states of the alien, which I found really surprising … I mean, that’s the confusing-as-batshit stuff in Prometheus, right? The stuff that seemed to come out of nowhere??
I actually wondered then if someone consulted Gibson’s script when they were writing Prometheus. Hell, the unholy mess of that movie would have made a hell of a lot more sense if they’d made Gibson’s script instead of the junk in Alien 3. Gibson’s Alien III manages to dance that line between not having all the answers (it is a new lifeform being researched after all …), but still remaining clear about the possibilities. In other words, not confusing the crap out of the audience.
Overall, reaching the end of it, I’m a bit sad that this isn’t the script that led to the film. It has such nice continuity with Aliens, honouring the characters that came before while expanding the storyworld. It doesn’t willy-nilly kill children, which I never used to think was an important barometer in film, but I do now. It provided such a nice lead to another outing. And yet, it didn’t get made.
In reading about the tortured path of the script development for Alien 3, there’s a palpable sense that the producers were trying to avoid a re-hash of the first two films. The disappointing thing is that those originality elements are there in Gibson’s script (the expanding of the storyverse’s depth, the hints to the alien’s origins, the set-up for a wholly different fourth film) while preserving the stuff that, let’s be honest, has to goddamn happen in an alien film: the alien gets out and runs amok. So it feels like one of those cases where everyone just fell over themselves. The movie equivalent of second-novel syndrome, perhaps. Who knows.
The plus side is, though, that now we at least have this audio performance of the script, and Michael Biehn is Hicks (as he goddamn should be … and he’s Kyle Reese too, let’s not forget) and Lance Henriksen is Bishop. Those facts alone were enough for me to sweep the TBR pile aside and do this first. If you’re a fan of Alien/Aliens, I recommend doing the same. And dear lords, let them reboot it all with Alien 5, and make the concept art into a living breathing film.
So a few days back, I blogged about The Man From Earth, the sleeper cult hit movie that is easily in my top ten favourite films ever. The original was written by Jerome Bixby, quite the legend in sci-fi circles. The sequel, TMFE: Holocene, is not, and it shows.
Now, to be fair, it’s always a tough ask to follow an excellent movie with a sequel. Only a few manage it (e.g. Alien/Aliens, Terminator/T2), and they have a habit of screwing the whole shebang by thinking two hits equals a never-ending franchise (including long-reach mental-arse prequels … I’m looking at you, Prometheus). I personally choose not to recognise the later Aliens, or Terminators (I have been known to get shouty about Prometheus and Terminator Salvation), and many others should have stopped at one (Predator, Speed … I’m divided on The Matrix). They are mostly not worth mentioning, narratively or otherwise. So Holocene always had the odds stacked against.
And to be honest, I’m somewhat still digesting the film. Why? Well, let’s look at it in two parts, where the first is what the film is.
To begin, it’s slow. The opening 30 mins were super draggy. Once we reached the part where the kids are investigating John, that held a bit more interest, though the film reached for some tropes that I found frustrating (especially the let’s break into a house to find something and almost get caught trope). Overall, the main disappointment for me was that the film sidelined the most interesting thing: John Oldman (now Young) himself. The first film draws all its narrative interest from his discussions with other characters. This movie has almost none of that, except in the horror-esque interrogation scene. As weirdhouse as that was, it was the most interesting part of the film for me. And that turn of events in itself was disappointing … it was as if the writers took the most out-there, most extreme idea from the first film and decided to run with it to its unadulterated end. I mean, the whole “he was Jesus” thing was like the narrative pinnacle of the first film, that touch point that had to be cautiously approached lest the whole story descend into too much in-your-face – basically losing that tiny element of doubt. Holocene instead chooses to embrace the in-your-faceness, which after the first film’s strength of all it implied rather than showed, felt heavy-handed. Evidence of that lack of gentle touch was also in the characters … the scantily clad student was one who stood out.
Having said all that, there were things that I did like. The intrigue around John’s apparent aging or changing, and the subtle lines drawn to the state of the Anthropocene perhaps being responsible, was nice. It also gets around that inevitable problem of having a human actor, who definitely ages, playing an immortal! I also liked the subtle capturing of the distress and distancing that immortality creates. Overall though, it was a bit of a disappointment, though a disappointment with an open end, hoping for another film or TV series to come. That ends my Part 1.
Now, having said all that, let’s step back and come at it from Part 2, which is about what the film isn’t. And by that, I mean that it’s all very well to harsh on a creative work for what it is, but a good editor always has fixes to offer, and to be honest, none of the ones I have so far entirely satisfy me.
My initial thought was that a movie that centralised John Oldman (Young) would be superior to one that doesn’t. Perhaps as he attempts to (carefully) investigate his recent changes and apparent aging. Though, that has the disadvantage of needing to perhaps overtly show some things (like tests, perhaps) instead of implying them. My other half also argued that this might make the “humans are responsible for destroying the Earth” theme too heavy-handed, which is fair criticism. I still like this idea, however, along with the opportunity for John to be working with perhaps trusted colleagues from the first film, rather than introducing a whole new cast and contriving the weird antagonism plot with Jenkins, which didn’t feel right to me.
I also recognise that there’s a danger of repeating the first film, if the movie had, say, chosen to have John engage with his students and answer their questions. That would have just been a re-hash with a different group of people, and makes me wonder if the movie chose its direction in part to avoid that that issue.
There’s a myriad other directions that could have been taken. For example, the first film implied that John has had many children. Perhaps a plot that revolved around his clandestinely visiting them (or one in particular) could have worked, and also tied into the aging theme.
Perhaps it’s the range of options that has me pulling back on condemning Holocene completely as a sub-par offering. Being a writer or screenwriter isn’t an easy thing. You choose directions for particular reasons, and sometimes you don’t see the weaknesses in those choices until later. In this case, I do feel the writer/s didn’t appreciate the strengths of the first film, and therefore didn’t try to work with those strengths in a new way. Ultimately, though, I’d like to see more from John Oldman, it’s just I won’t be adding Holocene to my list of favourites. Maybe to the list of teaching tools instead.
A few months back now, I became aware of Apollo 11, a film made from hitherto largely unseen NASA archival footage. At the time, I remember a lot of malarkey, googling around cinemas in Australia trying to find out where it would be playing. An IMAX in Sydney, I seem to remember, and I think I had already missed the dates. So the film’s existence had slipped behind my radar, which had more pressing concerns, bouncing off thesis due dates, momentary diversions into Stan dramas (Younger; The Bold Type) and Netflix rewatching of The Crown … the latter probably to offset the frivolu-fru of the former. In between I’ve been diving into vintage Crichton (for teaching), recommending The Time Ships to my other half, and suffering through some work literary fiction reading (too often stories about carefully observed banality of characters I care very little for … often very well written, but this is not the reason I read fiction. I can find it outside my door).
But, I digress.
About a week ago, the annual marginal benefit of being on the local superplex’s mailing list came through in an email announcing Apollo 11 would appear for a limited run across the anniversary weekend. So today, natch, I fronted up, was summarily reamed with a “special price” (which came with the added detriment of no trailers … one of the reasons I still go to the cinema) and went to see it.
Now, I’ve seen a good deal of footage from the Apollo missions before. I’m also well versed in space movies. The lapsed engineer in me still gets off on Apollo 13, Gravity, and the technical sequences in First Man (while the writer in me gets a little vexed when a thinky biopic goes a little far down its own rabbit hole). So Apollo 11 feels like something that will generate comparisons. And then, there are none. It is genuinely enrapturing, and not in the way I thought.
I mean, yes, the launch footage is fucking incredible. I don’t mind admitting the genuine emotion I get watching those engines fire. I mean, holy hell … the matter screaming out of those things that people designed and built, directing that power to such purpose. It feels so immense, so indescribably ambitious.
And that’s what the film does best … it captures the ambition of Apollo, and of the concert of human effort that made it happen. Of all those thousands of focused man-hours. Control rooms jammed with people. Cathedral workshops crawling with fabricators and technicians. But the other thing about it is that its just … so primitive. I couldn’t watch all those panning shots down rows and rows of ancient computer banks without thinking how stone age technology was then, just 50 years ago. The computer on the LEM stack overflowing as Armstrong and Aldrin made their descent to the surface.
And yet, look what was done. I couldn’t help feeling a keen sense of disappointment at how narrow our ambitions seem to be now, as people of this country, any country. How much capacity we have to work on this kind of problem with starting motivation, and continuing habitual pursuit. Not just in space exploration, but in any endeavour that aims for something beyond the next 4 years.
In any case, if you’re a space buff, I’d recommend catching it while it’s in limited release. It’s worth seeing on the big screen many of the sequences – the launch, the lunar footage, the shots of the control rooms, and the grippingly poetic moments, like the view from a separated stage segment, slowly processing as it falls away from the ship, in a pirouette that eventually brings Earth into view, a blue and white arc. The whole thing is unnarrated, just cleverly assembled 90-ish minutes of footage that follows the mission from beginning to end.
Arguments can always be made about where we should turn our attention and limited resources as a species. But this film isn’t really about that. It’s a demonstration of once fictional dreams brought to life, the embodiment of anti-banality. I was thoroughly captured from start to end.
… and as a point of interest for me (perhaps not to others without experience of oxygen systems) you might notice the dude who follows the astronauts from their prep room to the launch pad. The dude carrying the fire extinguisher. I saw that and thought, look at that, that guy’s there in case one of those three oxygen systems just walking around right now catches fire. The long shadow of Apollo 1. Incidentally, quite useful for my thesis.
I have a slide of characters I use in teaching, a composite of different mugshots from Jar Jar Binks (never fails to generate a groan) to Scarlet O’Hara, Howard Wolowitz to Sarah Connor. There’s a couple of tricky ones in there … Night Owl II is often mistaken for Batman, and the agent from Serenity is often a stumper, but in general in most classes there’s at least someone who knows each face. Except for the one below, a frame taken from the 2007 film The Man From Earth that no one ever seems to have heard of.
Word of this movie came to our house from friends in the UK, and my husband (ever the supplier in new things) bought the DVD. It worked on our old player, and not on the new one, but we have torrent for that now (more about that later). The box has a quote that says, “quietly restores dignity to science fiction of the mind”, and that’s exactly what it is. Set entirely in one man’s living room (with a few scenes outside the house) it’s one of the most deep-dive entwined science fiction history narratives I’ve seen. It pushes all my happy buttons in the concepts, characters and lingering questions. It’s long been in my top 5 favourite movies.
Then a couple of years ago (I say “a couple” and I mean probably more like ten, because of the small human time dilation) we heard Facebook filtered rumours about a sequel. Jerome Bixby, the revered sci-fi creator, had passed away, but director Richard Schenkman was on board. There was a crowd fund. And it was made: The Man From Earth: Holocene
It’s taken until now for me to come back to seeing it. Some of that is just the distribution. You have to know about it to want it. But in this case, the creators actually uploaded it to file-sharing sites, determined that all who wanted to see it would have access. Partly this was recognising that the cult-status and pirating of the first film was a huge part of its success. For us here in Australia, this was good news. Despite having to dust off and have a wrestle with utorrent (and Optus and TPG, who barred access to the file on PirateBay, even though the movie creators had put it there …), I have the movie now. I have duly been back to manfromearth.com to donate to the creators, but I’m now having another revisit about the thinking behind monetising creative products in the digital age … is it only workable for niche/cult products that generate affectionate feelings in us?
I don’t know. And I’m yet to watch Holocene. Opportunity has not yet presented, and to be honest, there’s that little fear of disappointment, like I have for all the Terminators after the second one (and all the Aliens for that matter). But I also find it comforting that good work, work that inspires and satisfies, can be found everywhere, especially off the mainstream road. And that’s why I keep that slide in my teaching classes, because word of mouth is how these things spread. And someone who doesn’t know it yet is going to find something special in John Oldman, too.
This Sunday Circle is an initiative of Peter M Ball (see here for this weeks’). I don’t get to it every week, but this is one of those weeks, so here we go.
What am I working on this week?
This is the second week of university marking, which means long hours at the computer, trying to remember not to twist my body towards the forward mouse hand. I’ve tried to swap the mouse to the left hand (constantly recommended by physio, chiro, etc etc) but that’s only good for gross-motor actions – navigating webpages type stuff. As soon as I need fine control on selecting particular words and sentences, mouse goes back in the right. I miss hard-copy marking. Marking on computers is slower and harder on the body. But I digress. Having mercifully gotten through both course tutorials’ final assignments by yesterday, this week it will be marking of the dissertations and essay students I supervised.
In addition, I’m teaching workshops tomorrow at my high school, a prospect that is equal parts exciting and terrifying. I love teaching, but my usual classes are university level. It was a challenge to strip out some of the ways I normally teach (mostly with inappropriately adult fiction and swears). At least I’m all prepped, and though you can never quite tell how it will go the first time running a new class, I’m as ready as I can be.
Other than that, I’m waiting to hear on a manuscript and navigating the decisions on teaching for the rest of the year, now that I’m about to submit my PhD (6-8 weeks away). The big change of a scholarship ending is looming on the horizon, though the actual thesis itself is away with proofreader/supervisor, so it feels rather distant at the moment.
If I survive all that, on Friday I’m flying out to the Emerging Writers’ Festival as a festival ambassador. I’m super looking forward to that. A weekend in Melbourne talking about books and writing and a few fun parties? Enthusing with other writers? That I get paid for? YES PLEASE.
What’s inspiring me this week?
Oddly, The Bold Type (on Stan). One of the kindy mums recommended it to me a few weeks back, and after watching the pilot, I wasn’t convinced. It felt uneven and a bit vacuous. But something drew me back, and I found myself unexpectedly drawn in. One of the reasons is I kept expecting to see “standard” characters trotted out (like that the magazine editor would be a hard-nosed arse, like Miranda Priestley in Devil Wears Prada) but surprise, the editor is a nuanced and unexpected character. The women in the show have complex work and personal lives, and it seems to broadly be about collaborative navigating of challenges, rather than oppositional character antagonism. I’m still trying to put my finger on what exactly about it intrigues me, but I think I’m getting close with that. One of my students this semester wrote a dissertation on television-style writing, and made the point that the writing has become more complex over time, moving far beyond the serialised stories I probably remember growing up in the 80s. [btw, one of the things I love most about teaching is how the interests of my students enrich the things I’m consuming]. Of course, now I’ve caught up with the end of The Bold Type and have to wait for more. Boo. But at least Younger is back.
Likewise, I’ve picked up Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers this week. Always marvel at her layering of people and the compelling way that she can write about characters. It’s particularly fascinating for me because of the subtle thread about being a writer (though one of the characters who is). There’s a whole thing in there about the vagaries of the publishing industry and writing careers, writer identity (reviews! genre snobbery!), and being a writer in the age of the woke internets. It’s fascinating me how many of these experiences are Moriarty’s own and how many are gleaned from the wider circle of writers who talk to each other.
What action do I need to take?
One day at a time, make it through the checklist of things to do before the festival. Make adult and definitive decisions about what I can commit time to in the next 6-12 months. Drink less coffee. Try to sleep. Try not to further damage shoulder. Make it to next Sunday.