Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Thing (Prequel - 2011) - Home Cinema Review (6.5/10)

Hey, Sweden!

Although the name has been left confusingly the same, this 2011 version of 'The Thing' is in fact a 'prequel' to the 1982 film 'The Thing'. Firstly, I'll state that I'm a big fan of the original. In fact, it's high in my top ten films of all time, equal to 'Alien'. When I first heard they were creating a prequel, I'll admit I was disappointed they weren't giving John Carpenter (Director of the original) a chance to create the sequel he'd always wanted to, but I wasn't averse to the idea of a prequel either.

Both films are set in 1982, Antarctica. A Norwegian research base has discovered an ancient spacecraft buried deep under the ice for as long as 100,000 years, along with the corpse of a creature that froze to death trying to escape the wreckage. They make the mistake of digging it up...

In the original film, the events at the Norwegian camp serve as off-screen back story. They enhance the mystery because the main characters see the results of what happened, without yet knowing why. The prequel tells the tale from the Norwegian camp, leading up to the original film.

Setting aside plot holes and contradictions and general film flaws for a moment, I found the biggest problem with the prequel is that it adds almost nothing to the story. Prequels by definition aren't necessary (since whatever story they're linked to obviously functioned before their existence), but if you're going to make them, you may as well truly add to the world they exist in. Regardless of what you think of the 'Star Wars' prequels, for example, there's no denying they add to the mythology of that universe. 'The Thing' is clearly not set in such an expansive realm, but there is more than enough room to grow the story. This film commits the sin of having that opportunity and not taking it. The only 'new' element is an interesting alternative to the 'blood test' scene from the original film. We do see inside the alien craft this time, but it is done in such a way as to add no information for the viewer, thus rendering it fun but pointless.

So what about the film in general? The acting is actually good. Unfortunately the script and direction gives the cast little to work with. The original film takes a team of several men, and over the course of the film each has a distinct and individual personality, partly through script, partly through direction, partly through picking a range of wonderful character actors. The prequel fails by not defining any of them in detail.

The lead character, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Die Hard 4.0, Final Destination 3) fares the best, but what little definition her character has, can be attributed to her acting and not the script. The film jumps into the 'horror' side of the story far too quickly, cutting out time to establish the other characters, with the possible exception of the lead scientist who plays a part reminiscent of his parallel in the first B&W version of the story, 'The Thing from Another World'.

All-in-all it feels like a film on fast forward. It lacks the atmosphere or tension of the original film precisely because it does not spend time setting up the horror moments. Instead they just 'happen', and we are expected to be scared because of 'gory creature'. The original film worked so well, because it was really about the fear of isolation and the paranoia of not knowing who you could trust. The horror, superb as it was, merely emphasised this. The prequel is robbed of any such moments. You never feel isolated and lonely, and you never have time to join the characters in worrying who is a creature and who isn't, before the next one is revealed.

The story never seems to know whether it wants to be a prequel, a homage or a remake. Sometimes things are introduced as if we should have the prior knowledge of the original (which alienates new viewers). Other moments are directly copied from the original in such a way as to imply a remake.

As for the creature effects themselves, we have another problem. The original is seen as a landmark in practical horror effects, that stand the test of time. They are beautiful and repulsive, created practically and filmed on-set. For the most part they feel utterly real, and even when they aren't perfect (though pretty damn close), they still work because the things were actual physical props dripping in fluids and tearing apart in front of our eyes.

The new film instead uses CGI effects, which while excellently done, stand out as CGI effects. This isn't a fault of the budget or the people who created them, it's simply a problem with modern CGI. It can do a great many things, but it still cannot recreate blood and gore and flesh as effectively as traditional effects. As a result, the creatures are never actually creepy or unnerving because the feeling in our gut tells us they aren't really there. It seems strange to think that in another twenty or thirty years, people will watch the original film and still feel that sick revulsion in their stomach at the realistic horror of the beast's transformations, while the modern big-budget film will look terribly fake.

Strangely enough, the sound is also a problem on the prequel. The original had screaming creature sounds that genuinely sent a shiver down the spine. The new film could have used the same sounds, but, apart from the occasional use, resorts to creating new ones that simply aren't as effective.

The musical soundtrack is also a disappointment. It's not bad, having been composed by Marco Beltrami, veteran of many a good film soundtrack (including a lot of horror films). Unfortunately the original film once again had an iconic and incredibly atmospheric score by veteran composer Ennio Morricone (Heavily influenced by the film's director, John Carpenter, who often creates his own scores), that Beltrami never matches. I don't like to criticise Beltrami, because I like a great deal of his other soundtracks, but I suspect he was told to create something different for the film, rather than emulate the original. It's just a shame that by doing so, it lacks the sombre and moody atmosphere it could have had.

Then we come to the continuity. This really is a head-scratcher. On the one hand we have a film that appears to go out of its way to carefully link itself to the original. For example, when the characters visit the burnt-out Norwegian camp in the original film, they find bodies and items in the camp that the prequel goes to great bother setting up. Then we have an absurd and glaring plot-hole. (Please stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers). The creature at the end of the prequel, escapes to the buried spaceship and by starting the engines, melts the ice above it. This creates two problems. One, the first film establishes with video footage that the Norwegian crew used Thermite charges to melt the ice above the buried craft, and reveal its surface. Two, if the crashed ship was still capable of flight, why did the creature not race to it earlier and why did it even leave the craft 100,000 years ago to freeze in the ice, instead of just taking off again? It makes no sense, especially in light of the efforts made to match continuity in other areas.

Finally, I shall comment on the direction. John Carpenter, director of the original film, had an unmistakeable style that suited the building of tension and atmosphere, having already made classic films such as the original 'Halloween' and 'Escape from New York'. The prequel, while functional, never gives us anything that stands out. There are moments in the original where just the composition of a shot can create a wonderful sense of foreboding, or character, or story. This new film seems to suffer from a problem symptomatic of many recent movies, where the directors and/or editors appear afraid to linger on any one shot. Unfortunately it is usually such carefully composed shots that create tangible atmosphere.

I've spent a lot of time outlining the problems with the film, so it may come as a surprise when I say I didn't hate it. In comparison to many recent horror movies it is surprisingly not bad, and even quite effective during its middle portion, between a rushed beginning and a muddled finale. Its problems occur when compared to the original, which still towers far above it. The new film has many, many problems, but when taken on its own, it is an enjoyable enough experience. Over all, I think it is not unlike 'Predators'. A film that takes so many of its best moments from its progenitor but adds so little, that it becomes ultimately pointless. It serves simply as a reminder of how great the original was and makes you want to go back and watch that. It's a shame, as it could have been so much more.


All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Digital Art - "Waking Mars" and "Pendragon"

I thought it was about time I added a bit more artwork, and although these two piece are at least a good few weeks old now, I realised I hand't posted them, so here goes...

As usual, these were entries for the Imagine FX magazine forum weekly competition.

Waking Mars
'Work In Progress' illustration 1
Title: "Waking Mars"

Description: "The year is 2050 and man is exploring the caverns on Mars. The expedition is run by The United Earth organisation who has spent billions on attaining the rights to any resources in this sector. During a routine mapping expedition, one of their survey teams stumbles across something unexpected. An hibernating dragon - now awakened by their presence, it is hungry and deadly."

'Work In Progress' illustration 2
Brief: "Create a Movie Poster for "Waking Mars" which displays the moment of discovery/awakening. Both dragon and human(s) need to be included in the composition, as well as the United Earth branding/logo."

I didn't leave myself enough time to finish this one properly for the competition, however, below you will see my final refined version.

In order to create it quickly, I drew it traditionally in pencil, then went over in ink and marker. Once scanned, I coloured it in Photoshop and added plenty of textures to bring it to life.

'Waking Mars' Final
I also wanted to give it an old movie poster feel, so as you will see, I've overlaid one of my own paper textures (if you remember the WWII Power Suit competition, you'll see when I originally created a few). The paper texture is all creased and folded and helps to give it the look as if it's been left in a drawer for a few years.

It's far from perfect, but it was a good experiment at how you can use colour, texture and light along with a few other little tricks, to bring life to something that was really quite quick and rough.


'Work In Progress' illustration 1
Next we have: "The Pendragon Castle of Camelot"

Description: "Depict a Pendragon Castle of Camelot."

Brief: "The castle can be anything from Fantasy style to historically accurate Roman constructions."

'Work In Progress' illustration 2
This one was created purely in Photoshop. No scanned drawings, only a couple of quick pencil sketches to get the layout straight in my head. I also wanted to experiment more with using Photoshop brushes that have a canvas texture, to see how it affected the overall look and style.

It's not brilliant, and I hate how poorly the towers and city came out, but I'm quite happy with the other elements.

'Pendragon' Final

I hope you enjoy these two new paintings!

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

John Carter (2012) - Cinema Review (5/10)

What Could Have Been...

Where do I start? I have one major disadvantage in writing a review of 'John Carter'. I'm biased. 'John Carter' is based on the first of my favourite series of books, the 'Martian Tales' written by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Who is probably most famous for being the original author of Tarzan). The first book is called 'A Princess of Mars' (First published as 'Under the Moons of Mars' in 1912).

The wonderful thing about Burroughs' 'Martian Tales', is that although never before put to film, they have probably had far more influence on science fiction literature and cinema than anyone realises. Many of the greatest science fiction writers of the last century quote Burroughs' as a great inspiration, from Ray Bradbury to Arthur C. Clarke. A number of the most successful science fiction directors also cite them as major influence on their work, from George Lucas with the 'Star Wars' movies to James Cameron with 'Avatar'. 'Star Wars' especially stands out. Tatooine is where you can feel the most clear influences, alongside Geonosis in Attack of the Clones, with it's deadly amphitheatre games and wild creatures.

Having recently re-read the first three books, I can honestly say they have aged wonderfully. His writing style may not stand up to critical analysis, but which is more important, that people enjoy reading his stories or that critics can't pick any holes? I have seen interviews with teenage readers who have been shocked at how modern and exciting the books are in comparison to other famous novels half their age.

Personally, I always felt Burroughs' writing had a lyrical flow, almost poetic. It may be a hundred years old, but it is as easy and enjoyable to read as any modern book. They crack along at an incredible pace, full of adventure, excitement, romance and outlandish wonderful imagination. There are eleven Mars books overall.

To get back to the film... Book adaptations are always a tricky thing. Film and literature are two different mediums that require different methods to tell a story. I don't think anybody would expect a film maker to slavishly reproduce the exact story of a book whilst turning it into a film. On the other hand, change too much and you cease to be making a true adaptation.

Where does 'John Carter' stand? Personally, I found it an extremely loose adaptation and an otherwise mixed bag. Names of characters and places are the same, many individual scenes have their origins in the books, and the creatures and overall world are reasonably accurate. Unfortunately it sort of ends there. The story has been changed so much with Hollywood clichés that it only vaguely resembles the general thrust of the original novel. If you boil them both down to “Boy travels to alien world, boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy fights to save girl from forced marriage to evil villain.”, then yes, they do have the same overall plot. Go beyond that, and things start to systematically fall apart.

The worst of all, is the complete loss of the characters themselves. Names and general background may be the same, but they are otherwise often different. John Carter himself is utterly changed. In the novel, he is an individual clearly searching for meaning and purpose, never quite at home on Earth. When he ends up on Mars (Or Barsoom, depending on your preference), it is as though destiny has taken a hand. You always feel he and the Princess of the title (Dejah Thoris) were always meant to be together and that Barsoom is his true home even if not his literal one.

Carter is also a hero who loves the thrill of battle. Not that he goes out of his way to find it, but he does not shy from it either. If he must rush into battle to save the ones he loves or to fight for his principles, then he will wholeheartedly jump in against impossible odds. He is an ex-soldier of clear-cut principle and nothing will stop him rescuing his one true love.

John Carter of the film is a different creature altogether. He has become a cliché of the modern film world. The ex-soldier who has lost his family in some unknown tragedy and become cynical about life and humanity and fights for no-one. These are attempts to shoe-horn in some unnecessary 'emotional' back story, but in the process lose the core of the character. Give him a tragic past romance to overcome and you undermine the depth of the 'always meant for each other' romance. Give him a cynical lack of desire to fight for anything and you lose the sense of heroic and noble selflessness.

The writers and producers apparently wanted to give his character more of an arc, and turn his story into one of redemption. This is the first big mistake, in my eyes. It was already, in a subtle way, a tale of renewed life. John Carter found love and purpose on Mars that he lacked on Earth, but never in so typically contrived a way. I have no problems with the type of character described for the film, often perfect for many stories, but in this case it seems like a needless tacked on extra. Not to mention, in the world of modern cinema the literary John Carter is in fact a more original and rarely used heroic character, rather than the stereotypical brooding and grudging hero.

The director of 'John Carter' is Andrew Stanton, known for directing Disney's 'Finding Nemo' and 'Wall-E'. This is his first live action film, and unfortunately it shows. With real actors, you can't make the broad and general strokes that work with animation. Here things feel rushed for the action scenes, and it sorely required more time to establish the characters.

His portrayal of the lead character is also marred by going over-the-top. Yes, John Carter was meant to be incredibly powerful and capable of jumping great heights in the books, due to the lower gravity of Mars. However, in the film these elements are taken to absurd extremes. Carter is able to practically fly and can be thrown around with barely a scratch. It stretches the story from being about an incredibly skilled but very human hero with a few advantages that save him from time to time, into a bouncing superman.

Stanton is supposedly a huge fan of the novels, but you wouldn't know it from the film. He appears to be one of those film makers who believes they know better than an author who's work has been popular and loved for a hundred years. Some of his statements in interviews imply that because the novels weren't considered Pulitzer prize winning works of greatness, they are open for drastic alteration. Forget the fact that these novels have out-sold and out-lasted any number of prize winners for a hundred years, and also influenced many of the greatest science fiction authors and film makers of the past century.

I'll try and stop myself going off on a tangent about all of the alterations, suffice to say they lose much of the impact of the novels. There are two major points I will make, though. The first three books form a trilogy with two key themes. Race and Religion. These are not at the first book's core, but would become prominent if sequels were made.

Stanton has changed the Red Men of Mars to people with silly red tattoos (He claims, in an era where they can do practically anything with CGI, that the red make-up was too difficult). In the books, Mars has a variety of skin colours which all have their own agendas and beliefs. The Red Men are seen by John Carter to be, in many ways, the most noble and wonderful race of humanoid Martians because they are meant to be a mixture of all colours, exemplifying the greatness of the other races combined.

Then we have the Therns. The film has turned them into planet-hopping shape-shifting aliens, and as such they can no longer serve the purpose they had in the books. Not only did they contribute to the themes of race, but also religion. The Therns were worshipped by the Red Martians, but revealed by John Carter to be false gods and in fact merely another race of mortals. The changes not only negate these points, but negate another overall storyline involving a different race in the second and third books (Which is when the Therns were introduced anyway, not in book one).

So Stanton's changes have not only altered less important elements, but rendered the core themes either impossible or at the very least drastically limited their potential impact and meaning. As for the replacement-plot, removing the elements that were borrowed from Burroughs, it makes what should be straight forward feel contrived and vague.

What, you may ask, actually works? Woola, John Carter's faithful Martian hound, is probably the closest character to the original, such as he is (Though he should look less cuddly and cute). Tars Tarkas, the leader of the Green Martians isn't too far removed. Other than that, the characters are either quite unlike their originals, or get so little screen time that they have no chance to shine anyway.

Parts of the opening scenes, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs reading his uncle's journal and John Carter discovering the Thark (the Green Martians) hatchery are extremely good, and give a real inkling of how the film could have been.

The design work is excellent in places, often visually at least capturing the correct atmosphere. The acting is for the most part quite good, although the lead, Taylor Kitsch (X-Men Origins:Wolverine, The Covenant), is unfortunately the worst actor and rather uncharismatic. Lynn Collins (X-Men Origins:Wolverine) neither disappoints nor impresses as 'the greatest beauty of two worlds', Dejah Thoris.

The soundtrack by Michael Giacchino (The new Star Trek, Super 8) is functional but forgettable. He is not a bad soundtrack composer, but he is yet to create anything that I have found noteworthy, even for films like 'Super 8' that I greatly enjoyed. You certainly won't come away humming the theme tune.

The direction and script are serviceable for the most part but rarely capture the grandeur or epic sensibilities required. For all his perceived flaws, George Lucas could run circles around Andrew Stanton in these departments. It just goes to show that directing animated movies does not always translate into an ability to direct real people and real action.

Stanton has created not so much of an adaptation, as a film 'inspired by' the book, and it is all the weaker for it. Some critics have complained about the convoluted plot and strange names and species. I had not such problems, as there is nothing that complicated going on. Unfortunately, understanding the plot is not its biggest problem.

The most frustrating and disappointing thing about this film is not so much what it was, but what it could have been. I think that if I had never read the books, I would have enjoyed it more, without being especially impressed. Unfortunately I know how amazing this could have been. I suspect Stanton enjoyed the books when younger, but was one of those people who sits there thinking “If I'd written them, I'd have done this, and changed that...” That's fine if you go away and use that enthusiasm to write your own story. Stanton didn't.

I'm giving this a five, mainly for the sometimes excellent effects and design work and the hints of what could have been. For anyone interested, I would seriously advise reading the original book/s.


All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A New Beginning

I've been a bit lax with my blog lately, so I thought I would post some ramblings... I'm fast approaching completion of the first draft of my new book! Having spent years writing half-finished novels, it is a joy to finally have one of them nearing a conclusion (albeit as an intended first book of six).

Let me explain. I took the somewhat drastic decision last year to cease writing my main novel. I had been been working on it for so many years, that I realised it had become a millstone. It was no longer my 'big chance' and had become an unwieldy blockade to progress. I felt like I was getting nowhere.

I do intend to come back to it one day. It's over one hundred thousand words of thoughts and dreams and ideas that I have no intention of ditching. However, it needed to be put on indefinite hold.

My greatest worry was at having done this before. It's all too easy to start something fresh when you have a great idea, but it is often to the detriment of your half-finished work. 'Should I do it?' I asked myself. My lack of major progress in the past few years made the answer simple but no less daunting. How do you put away such a large amount of work to start on something else from scratch?

As some of you reading this will know, my mother passed away last year. At her funeral I reacquainted myself with an old friend. When we were around eleven or twelve my family moved, but we maintained contact on the phone and through letters (No email back then!). In amongst those letters, we drew and wrote stories of our 'alternate' reality. We intermingled our real lives with a science fiction world of adventure in which we were the heroes.

Having been reminded of this, it somehow all fell into place in my mind. My mother used to encourage me in the writing of those stories. Some became primitive comics, others I wrote by hand with occasional illustrations. It seemed fitting that my literary 'fresh start' should be a children's adventure story using the core of those dreams and fantasies that she encouraged. My hope is that since it clearly appealed to me at that age, it will appeal to modern children as well.

The rough structure flowed out into my notebook; A plan for six novels in a series, a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the first book, characters and creatures... The vast bulk of ideas emptied out in a mass of scribblings over two days.

Since then, I have been writing like mad. My characters have grown, taken on lives of their own and frequently dictate their own paths regardless of my opinion. The story is there, and the first adventure is nearly complete.

What does the future hold for Christopher Tyson and his companions? Well, actually, I know! Will children enjoy reading these adventures as much as I have enjoyed writing them? Only time will tell...

All work is the © copyright of W.D.Lee and/or the respective companies, individuals or organisations to which the work is related. No infringement is intentional. No reproduction or copying is permitted without express permission.