Saturday, 28 April 2012

I wasn't too bothered when the title for the British release of Joss Whedon's superhero ensemble was changed from The Avengers to Avengers Assemble, in order to avoid confusion with the classic 60s TV series and its "classic" 90s film adaptation. It isn't a bad title at all - there's a kind of energy to it which draws you in, making people assemble at the cinema as if they wouldn't anyway - nor is it a bad reason to change the title (is it, producers of John Carter OF MARS?).

As well as the title, there's actually a film. Yes, finally. After the tour de force of a marketing campaign for a film which included five films. And now it's here. And it's a good film. But not as excellent as you'd hope from something first hinted at so, so long ago, in the days of Iron Man.

And that very man is back, assembling with Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk to battle evil god Loki, and joined by Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson and the bloke from The Hurt Locker, whose job is to make everything a little less camp. There's also a plot, involving Loki stealing a glowing blue box which has incredible powers of drawing people together to blow shit up so that they can get their hands on its incredible powers.

No, I didn't really give a damn about the box either, but, despite this, each character has a well-defined arc with some degree of actual depth and development – a surprise given that most of the films leading up to it were so flat. Captain America's dealing with having slept in a bit, Thor's got family issues, and Iron Man has his relationship with his ridiculously-named assistant. Even perhaps less major characters, like Black Widow and Agent Coulson, have their own stories, expanding the film's appeal beyond pure "wow, that's cool" even if not allowing the kind of thematic depth a more focused film could have. The weak link is Loki's alien army, who have no personality, no motivation, and no purpose except to provide opportunities for massive fight scenes. 

They are very nice looking massive fight scenes, though. Whedon has a talent for crafting incredibly detailed, immersive and fluid action sequences which, despite being CGI-heavy, are a joy to watch. A long tracking shot through the climactic New York City battle is a particular highlight.

The Firefly writer-director also recognises that there's a lot of humour to be drawn from bringing together the well-known characters and creates a lot of very funny moments, mainly consisting of the Hulk punching things or Robert Downey Jr. saying things.

All things considered, however, Avengers Assemble, while a fun and diverting spectacle, doesn’t come close to matching the power and resonance of Chris Nolan’s Batman films. Which all superhero films have to be compared to now. Bring on The Dark Knight Rises.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The BBC recently released this trailer for the upcoming series of Doctor Who:

It looks good, doesn't it? A Western shot on location in Spain, snowy plains, lots of explosions. The production value has certainly been ramped up recently, as the show's fiftieth anniversary approaches. It looks good, certainly. But does it look like it will be a good series?

This trailer was released a whole half a year before the series' broadcast (making Who TV's equivalent of The Hobbit in terms of too-soon publicity) and when only two and a half episodes of the series had actually been filmed, so it's not possible to make a proper judgement about the quality of the series from it.

Compared to this trailer from last year, however, it really isn't a good trailer. The series seven trailer, a few moments of humour aside, is entirely focused on showing off:

A) the fact that there's a Western - i.e. genre
B) the fact that they shot the Western on location abroad - i.e. production values

Whereas the series six trailer focuses more on character - through killer lines of dialogue beginning with River's "the Doctor's darkest hour" monologue, through "Fear me, I've killed all of them" and ending with "I've been running my whole life. Now it's time for me to stop", the trailer hints at series six's exploration of the darker side of the Doctor's character, as well as the development of the story arc. The glimpses of impressive location filming in Utah and on a pirate ship are there, but as part of a fast paced series of images that tends more towards characters. 

Let's compare the final shots of each trailer and what thoughts they invite.
Series six: Close ups of Amy and the Doctor, screaming, then looking very worried. What has happened? How does what has happened affect these characters?
Series seven: Dalek eyestalk. Oh, it's a Dalek story. It had better not be as shit as Victory of the Daleks. Cowboy android man aiming gun. Oh, it's a Western. I already knew that from the rest of the trailer.

You see, for a good, engaging story, it's character and emotion that are important, not genre or production values. This interview with Alfred Hitchcock is very interesting - "I don't give a damn about what the film's about. I'm more interested in how to handle the material to create an emotion in an audience."

While the production values of classic Doctor Who are not great, to put it nicely, its distinctive characters and quirky British humour mean I'd rather watch Peter Davison strapped to a cardboard torture device by an evil bubble wrap robot than glossy but overly action-focused American productions like Star Trek any day. Another example is the recent film John Carter, which poured planet-loads of money into big action sequences but forgot to have a comprehensible plot. Another dry, characterless Hollywood mess. The new series of Doctor Who, at its best, gives us high production values alongside engaging stories and madcap humour, all mixed together, and is all the better for it. The series seven trailer, however, looks like one of those American action science fiction series.

Don't get me wrong; as a devoted Whovian, it's my duty to be optimistic about the upcoming series. As well as series six's cliffhanger hint at further exploration of the Doctor's character, Steven Moffat has promised an emotional end to the story of companions Amy and Rory. And, while the handling of their arc has been flawed in the past (forgetting about major traumatic events/plot developments while going off to have standalone adventures, leaving and rejoining the Doctor too many times), I don't doubt that the Ponds' send-off will be full of intense, heartstring-pulling, character-driven moments. I just don't get any of that from the trailer.

Oh, and there probably will be a better series seven trailer closer to broadcast. When they've filmed it.

Looking at genre fiction in general, I wouldn't go quite as far as Hitchcock in the implication that setting and content is entirely meaningless. There has to be a reason why people identify themselves as Western fans, or, like myself, science fiction fans. Maybe it's the exotic locations, the mythic qualities, or genre fiction's ability to look at world issues through allegory. But these qualities aren't enough to qualify certain types of fiction as "worthy", in some people's eyes.

There was a really annoying article in the Culture supplement of the Sunday Times last week. It was about a woman who's read "all" of the "classic literature" and has written a book of commentary on it. At the end  of the interview, asked what she's reading now, she claimed to enjoy science fiction as a "guilty pleasure". Why should it be described like that? Across all media - literature, films, television - a great many geniuses have written brilliant, insightful stories that come under this banner and I think it's offensive to describe their works as guilty pleasures.

Because the great works of science fiction, as well as the cool robots, the scary aliens, and the exotic landscapes, have great stories, great characters and, often, great humour - just like the great works of classic literature.

(This is similar to the old "television/film is less worthy than film/literature" argument, but I'll not get started on that one today.)

Some of my time over the Easter (after having finished my essay on Doctor Who fandom) has been spent writing a Doctor Who fan script. I've tried to include all the elements of Who that I love - humour, horror, emotion, and exciting science fiction ideas (some mine, mainly Steven Moffat's). It's far from finished, but I'll post it here when it is.

I'll end this musing with a wonderful piece of science fiction poetry (yeah, sci-fi poetry - got a problem with that?) that I found recently, The Day the Saucers Came by Neil Gaiman, who wrote an excellent Who episode last year. It has everything you could want in a piece of genre fiction - aliens, zombies, Norse gods, time travel, and, all-importantly, a powerful emotional punch:

That day, the saucers landed. Hundreds of them, golden,
Silent, coming down from the sky like great snowflakes,
And the people of Earth stood and
      stared as they descended,
Waiting, dry-mouthed, to find what waited inside for us
And none of us knowing if we would be here tomorrow
But you didn’t notice it because

That day, the day the saucers came, by some coincidence,
Was the day that the graves gave up their dead
And the zombies pushed up through soft earth
or erupted, shambling and dull-eyed, unstoppable,
Came towards us, the living, and we screamed and ran,
But you did not notice this because

On the saucer day, which was the zombie day, it was
Ragnarok also, and the television screens showed us
A ship built of dead-men’s nails, a serpent, a wolf,
All bigger than the mind could hold,
      and the cameraman could
Not get far enough away, and then the Gods came out
But you did not see them coming because

On the saucer-zombie-battling-gods
      day the floodgates broke
And each of us was engulfed by genies and sprites
Offering us wishes and wonders and eternities
And charm and cleverness and true
      brave hearts and pots of gold
While giants feefofummed across
      the land, and killer bees,
But you had no idea of any of this because

That day, the saucer day the zombie day
The Ragnarok and fairies day, the
      day the great winds came
And snows, and the cities turned to crystal, the day
All plants died, plastics dissolved, the day the
Computers turned, the screens telling
      us we would obey, the day
Angels, drunk and muddled, stumbled from the bars,
And all the bells of London were sounded, the day
Animals spoke to us in Assyrian, the Yeti day,
The fluttering capes and arrival of
      the Time Machine day,
You didn’t notice any of this because
you were sitting in your room, not doing anything
not ever reading, not really, just
looking at your telephone,
wondering if I was going to call.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012